No Place Like Home: Iraq’s Refugee Crisis Threatens the Future of Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 8

The massive upheaval of Iraq’s population that has occurred since 2006 threatens the long-term stability of the country, regardless of short-term gains achieved through the political process or military surges. Symptomatic of a destabilized Iraq, displaced populations are themselves a source of future destabilization. Many Middle Eastern countries experienced instability resulting from Palestinians displaced after the establishment of Israel in 1948, the last refugee crisis of comparable proportions in the region.  Problems originating from the Palestinian refugee crisis continue today, and the wheels of a new refugee crisis have been set in motion with over four million of Iraq’s original 26 million inhabitants displaced since 2003, representing about 20 percent of its pre-war population. [1] An estimated two million Iraqi refugees now reside predominantly in Syria and Jordan, and an additional estimated 1.6 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs). [2]

Iraq has a long history of migration both inside and outside of the country.  Under Saddam, Shi’a Arabs and Kurds fled to Iran to escape oppression. The Ba’athist regime actively attempted to alter the demographics of the predominantly Kurdish north and the Shi’a south.  In 2003, Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions temporarily fled the general violence of the U.S.-led military intervention.  But the displacement that has occurred since the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque affected all of Iraq’s different groups in unprecedented proportions, altering the demographic fabric of the nation for the foreseeable future. [3] Sunnis fled Shi’a-dominated areas for predominantly Sunni provinces or went abroad; Shi’a fled Sunni provinces for predominantly Shi’a provinces or abroad; Arabs evacuated Kurdish areas of Iraq and Christians have largely left the country altogether (Al-Sabah, January 16). [4] As an unintended consequence of the U.S. invasion, Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have worked for Coalition forces have been targeted for assassination.  

A local “brain drain” has particularly affected Iraq because those with education and resources are more capable of leaving the country and setting up residence abroad. The less fortunate have been left to fend as best they can inside Iraq. The end result is an Iraqi population that has a greater proportion of young, inexperienced, poorly educated religious and political extremists than otherwise would have been the case. With a large portion of Iraq’s well-educated middle class now living in Jordan, rebuilding Iraq will be even more difficult (Aswat al-Iraq, July 1, 2009). [5]

Refugees Fuel Insurgencies

Less than ten percent of Iraq’s displaced have returned to their original homes in Iraq. [6] The vast majority, however, remain in neighboring Syria and Jordan with no plans to return to a still-volatile Iraq and return becomes less likely with each passing year (Aswat al-Iraq, January 2). Host countries resist granting permanent residency status to refugees and likely will remain firm on this position. [7] Concerns related to the history of displaced Palestinian Arabs and economic conditions in these same countries will deter Syria and Jordan from accepting Iraqi refugees as legal residents.  Refugee children remain largely outside the education system, which will make unemployment a growing problem in the future as they mature and attempt to enter the local labor pool with few marketable skills.  Even well-educated Iraqi adults work tenuously in grey markets, subject to exploitation and deportation. [8]

Only a small percentage of the approximate two million Iraqi refugees will be resettled in third countries. As the largest resettlement destination for Iraqi refugees, the U.S. took in 33,000 Iraqi refugees from 2003 to 2009, a tiny portion of the overall 2 million Iraqi refugees. [9] European nations, which accepted thousands of Iraqi refugees from 2003-2008, are indicating they will no longer resettle Iraqis, even forcibly repatriating some Iraqi asylum-seekers (Aswat al-Iraq. October 17, 2009).

Even if the United States could increase the number of Iraqi refugees it resettles to more adequately address the Iraq refugee crisis (which is unlikely in the current economic downturn), many Iraqis do not wish to be resettled outside of the Middle East and do not register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the first step toward resettlement. Caught between two unappealing options, many Iraqis choose the least-worst alternative and remain in semi-legal status in neighboring countries rather than face the lengthy and complicated process of resettling in the United States or Europe, both viewed as hostile and discriminatory toward Arabs. [10] The large numbers of Iraqi refugees concentrated in Amman, Damascus and a few other locations in the Middle East are creating social support networks.  Resettlement in the United States, on the other hand, can result in social isolation and extreme poverty because of a lack of adequate support for refugees. [11]

The large “grey” Iraqi population emerging in the Middle East, tolerated but not integrated, is likely to grow in the coming years.  As with Palestinian refugees after 1948, stateless Iraqis will become a population ripe for fueling future insurgencies in Iraq and the region. Eventually, Iraqi refugees will seek residency rights through local integration, diminishing resettlement possibilities, or returning to Iraq, either voluntarily or through forced repatriation. All of these options will be complex and probably violent.  Host countries may choose to expel or deport Iraqi refugees rather than set a precedent for granting permanent residency rights to other displaced Arabs in the region. The future Iraqi government, likely to be dominated by religious Shi’a political parties, is unlikely to welcome an influx of Sunnis and moderates who could challenge their authority. [12]

Iraqi refugees are already fueling insurgent activity in Iraq.  Among the first to flee Iraq after the initial U.S. invasion were Ba’athists who took refuge in Syria and Jordan (Aswat al-Iraq, September 28, 2009). The Iraqi government accuses Ba’athist residents abroad of insurgent activity and blames them for the spate of terrorist bombings targeting Iraqi government institutions in late 2009. Iraq has also accused Syria of harboring Ba’athist terrorists; an allegation Syria adamantly rejects (Aswat al-Iraq, September 28, 2009). Further tensions between Baghdad and Damascus threaten the already fragile status of Iraqi refugees in Syria, as Syria could expel all illegal Iraqi residents to retaliate against Baghdad’s accusations.

IDPs Worse Off than Refugees

IDPs in Iraq face challenges similar to those of the refugees, but without assistance from international organizations or the option of resettlement to safer countries. IDPs encounter obstacles enrolling their children in new schools, registering for public benefits, accessing health care and finding jobs. Many Iraqi IDPs are not able to access government services in their new provinces because the Iraqi government either has not been able to mobilize programs for IDPs or because the distribution of the resources available for IDPs is divided along sectarian lines, favoring the Shi’a population. [13] In the absence of central government assistance, sectarian militias have stepped into the arena.  Shi’a militia groups provide resources for displaced Shi’a; Sunni militias provide similar services for displaced Sunnis, providing basic food and fuel and assistance in settling in homes abandoned by other displaced Iraqis, setting the stage for future violent property disputes divided between sectarian groups. Indeed, property restitution will likely be among the most intractable of the long-term problems facing Iraq in the future. [14] Even if IDPs successfully integrate into their new communities, the majority will not willingly give up all rights to their former properties and will seek restitution or compensation once conditions in Iraq have improved.

Because they are still in Iraq, IDPs must also deal with Iraq’s high levels of crime and violence. Indeed, many IDPs would probably prefer to leave Iraq for destinations where job prospects would be better and violence levels lower.  However, IDPs lack sufficient financial resources and social networks to leave the country and support themselves abroad.  IDPs are a population ripe for recruitment by insurgents and militias as, having fled violence, they are focused on security and view participation in armed groups as one of the only options for defending themselves and their families against future attacks.  Both Sunnis and Shi’a who have been internally displaced are joining local militias and insurgent groups, as these are the only employment opportunities available. [15]

Of those refugees returning to Iraq from abroad, the large majority become part of the IDP population. [16] These refugees do not return to their original homes, but rather seek new homes where they will not be a target for sectarian violence. [17] Sunnis who fled  to places abroad from Basra in 2006, for example, are unlikely to return to Basra and instead will likely seek new homes in regions where Sunnis are the majority. Over time, accumulated refugee returns to Iraq will intensify the division of the country along sectarian lines.

Demographic Warfare

The dynamic of Iraqi IDPs and refugees since 2006 has altered the demographic fabric of Iraq. The country in 2010 looks vastly different than it did before the Coalition invasion and the Samarra mosque bombing. Previously mixed Shi’a-Sunni neighborhoods are now almost entirely homogenous. Northern territories which used to house Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen, and other ethnicities are now less diverse, with Kurds claiming more area for the independent Kurdish region through tactics intended to chase away minorities.

One result may be greater regional stability, as ethnically homogenous populations more readily agree on social and political goals. Regional stability, however, will come at the cost of decreased national stability and greater fragility in relations between Iraq and its neighbors.  

A homogenous Kurdish area will have less incentive to engage with Arabic-speaking areas of Iraq. A homogenous Shi’a region will have little incentive to listen to Sunni concerns, let alone make concessions to them. Ten years ago, many areas of Iraq were home to mixed populations of Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni who made the necessary political compromises to co-exist peacefully. The population displacement that has occurred in Iraq, however, has exacerbated sectarian and ethnic tensions and greatly decreased incentives for negotiation and compromise.

As demographically homogenous regions become stronger and more unified in their aspirations, the central government will become less capable of unifying the nation. Already, provincial governments have become more capable at exacting monetary tribute from the weak national government. In 2009, Baghdad bowed to Basra and the Kurdish Regional Government, according them one dollar per barrel of oil produced or refined.  For each religious visitor, Najaf will receive a fee from the national government.  National unity achieved through buying off provincial governments is tenuous, dependent on unstable oil prices in Iraq and a government struggling with corruption and inefficiency.

A national Iraqi census envisioned for late 2010 will reveal the extent to which the country has become divided (Aswat al-Iraq, August 31, 2009). This census is likely to be controversial, fraught with implementation challenges and marking a new phase of instability in Iraq. Determining the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk will be linked to completing a census, which will reveal the demographic make-up of these highly sensitive areas. National elections slated for March 7 will also expose the extent to which Iraq has changed demographically since the 2005 elections, likely triggering further sectarian violence.

Repeating History

The Palestinian refugee crisis was a recipe for disaster, and history is now repeating itself with the current Iraqi crisis, which will likely set off decades of sectarian violence, insurgent and terrorist activity, and conflicts arising from reintegration efforts.  The violence occurring in Iraq has the potential to spill over into neighboring countries, which also struggle with sectarian tensions between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Christians. For many Iraqis, going home is no longer an option, and even the displaced within Iraq who succeed in returning to their original geographic location will find a nation vastly changed and a government, perhaps more democratic, but less capable of ensuring national unity.


1. Exact figures- both of refugees and of Iraq’s pre-war population- do not exist and numbers are disputed by the government of Iraq and host countries.  However, these figures are the ones most quoted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations involved in the Iraq refugee and displacement crisis.  See UNHCR Global Appeal 2009 Update (2009) and Elizabeth Ferris, The Looming Crisis: Displacement and Security in Iraq (Washington: The Brookings Institution, August 2008).
2. Younes, Kristele and Rosen, Nir.  “Uprooted and Unstable,” Refugees International,  April 2008. p.1; “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments Post February 2006 Displacement in Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, October 1, 2009.
3. “Assessment of Return to Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, November 3, 2009.
4. “Iraq’s Dangerous Trigger Line,” The Economist.  February 11.
5. Fisher, Nathan.  “The Iraqi Refugee Crisis Continues.”, June 30, 2009.  
6. About 336,000 out of 1.6 million IDPs.  “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments Post February 2006 Displacement in Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, October 1, 2009.
7. “Refugee Crisis in America,” Georgetown Law, October 7, 2009, p.13.
8. Ibid
9. Ibid
10. Ibid, pp. 15-19.
11. Ibid, pp. 25-33.
12. “Iraq: Preventing the point of no return,” Refugees International. April 7, 2009.
13. Kristele Younes and Nir Rosen, “Uprooted and Unstable,” Refugees International. April 2008, p. 5-6.
14. “Iraq: Preventing the point of no return,” Refugees International. April 7, 2009; “Assessment of Return to Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, November 3, 2009.
15. Younes and Rosen, op cit, pp.304.
16. The UNHCR found 70% of Iraqi refugees returning from Syria became internally displaced.  See Younes and Rosen, op cit, p.14.
17. “Assessment of Return to Iraq,” International Organization for Migration.  November 3, 2009; “Iraq: Preventing the point of no return,” Refugees International, April 7, 2009.