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Displacement-Emigration-Return: Understanding Uncertainty in Iraq

Following the Islamic State’s (IS) occupation of Iraqi territories in June 2014 more than 3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled their homes in search for a secure place. Of these, around 1,3 million found refuge in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). In parallel to new waves of displacement, Iraqis were also choosing to migrate abroad. In 2015, Iraqis were among the top three nationalities reaching Europe through the Mediterranean routes, after Syrians and Afghans (UNHCR 2016b, 34). Besides displacement and emigration, a large number of IDPs have returned to their place of origin since 2017. As the process intensifies, the security, political and economic conditions of the liberated areas still remain unstable and unpredictable.

This report provides policy recommendations based on the results of the research study titled “Drivers for onward migration: the case of Iraqi IDPs in the Kurdistan Region leaving Iraq”, which was conducted between May and November 2017. In it, we addressed the questions: what mechanisms are responsible for explaining why IDPs living in the KRI want to either stay, emigrate or return to their places of origin? and what are the relationships between displacement, emigration and return in the context of Iraq?

To address these questions, we employed both quantitative and qualitative analyses methods including: (a) evaluating 500 questionnaires distributed among IDPs in the KRI (Erbil, Duhok and Suleimaniyah governorates) between May and June 2017; (b) conducting 30 semi-structured interviews with IDPs in the KRI between June and July 2017, and (c) discussing preliminary results of the study during a workshop in Erbil on 23 July 2017 with local, national and international actors, including governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The data indicates that, although slightly more than half of the sample wish/plan to leave Iraq (55%), only a minority of the subjects (23%) actually developed a concrete plan to do so. Emigration was most appealing to those ages 26–35 and among those with no or low levels of education. Moreover, Yazidis and Christians were more represented among those who wished or planned to leave Iraq. In addition, the most important pull factors point to the presence of family/relatives and friends along with the confidence of receiving refugee status upon arrival. Ultimately, IDPs perceptions of insecurity and lack of economic opportunities appear to be the most compelling reasons driving their wish/plan to emigrate.

The data also suggests that IDPs’ perceptions towards the future political, economic and security situations in Iraq (expressed in the next five years) is the most relevant factor determining people’s emigration decision: within an overall negative assessment of the future of Iraq, IDPs wishing or planning to emigrate held a more pessimistic view compared to those who wanted to return or stay in displacement. Conversely, the study finds that socio-political (i.e., relations between IDPs and hosting communities) and socio-economic (i.e., income level and employment status) factors are less significant in determining IDPs’ wish/plan to leave the country. Where socio-political and socio-economic factors do not directly influence IDPs’ intentions, they however, contribute to a distressing sense of uncertainty prevalent among IDPs.

Political, social and economic uncertainty overarchingly influences displacement, emigration and return in and from Iraq. Additionally, the Government of Iraq (GoI) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have not been capable of (or willing to) address such uncertainty. Rather, they have contributed to a governance of uncertainty best illustrated by the absence of a comprehensive framework for managing displacement and return in both the KRI and greater federal Iraq. In response, this study calls for the development of robust policies at the international, national and local levels which:
a. Consider displacement in Iraq as a chronic condition versus a sudden crisis;
b. Recognize how recurrent, protracted and unresolved displacement waves destabilize the region;
c.  Appreciate displacement as a diversified phenomenon.

These findings stress the destabilizing and traumatic effects of displacement and the urgency of addressing them, thus, we recommend the following prioritized policy areas through which international, regional, national and local actors can contribute to solve, or at least mitigate, the negative impact of displacement:
1. Elaborate and implement a national policy framework for displacement capable of addressing its multiple manifestations;
2. Adopt facilitation (without active encouragement) measures that can decrease the prevalent uncertainty among the population;
3. Include displacement in the broader physical and social reconstruction plan for Iraq.

The data for this report was collected in Spring/Summer 2017, and thus, describes a scenario that has changed following the events that took place in September and October 2017 (see Section 3). However, the findings and recommendations that the study identified appear as relevant today as they were pre- Referendum. Although the situation has changed, they support policy-recommendations that are urgently needed.

The research project “Drivers for onward migration: the case of Iraqi IDPs in the Kurdistan Region leaving Iraq” was funded by the NWO – Security and Rule of Law in Fragile and Conflict Affected Settings programme. It was conducted by researchers from the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) in collaboration with Qandil and the Joint Crisis Coordination Centre (JCCC).

Download full the report here.

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