Ninewa Plains and Western Ninewa Barriers to Return and Community Resilience

The sustainable return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq occupies many international donor projects and resources. However, in the context of the Ninewa province, this problem is not straightforward. Both the concept of displacement and expectation of return are complicated by a long history and atrocious waves of violence, including war, genocide, state-discrimination and systematic demographic changes.

Displacement is ingrained in the history of Ninewa and forms part and parcel of community narratives about survival, identity and belonging. In this way, displacement cannot be conceptualized as a linear process or a uniform experience, but rather as a transformative experience conditioned on geographical, gender and identity factors.

This report is a meta-analysis of the vast literature on Ninewa IDPs and the barriers to their return. It covers important analytical and contextual gaps with firsthand research to inform and enhance stakeholder policies. The various sections of this report will delineate the following primary findings:

  • The crisis of displacement should be studied through a combination of multiple causes and circumstances, constituting the environment or conditions of diffused long-term insecurity and uncertainty at both the local and national levels.
  • The well-founded absence of trust in the government (central, regional and local), political institutions and security forces to safeguard Ninewa’s citizens has cascaded into conflictual inter- and intra-community relationships and proliferated opportunist security actors. With the resulting growth of conflict sentiments and fueling of demographic changes, this distrust is a fundamental barrier to return.
  • The dynamics of displacement and return are happening in a context and cannot be understood in isolation. IDP movements are outcomes of a variety of complex developments, requiring in-depth understanding and contextual analysis, in order to develop effective and long-term policy and programming.
  • Before, during and following stages of displacement, women are targeted and made vulnerable in different ways than men. Women’s experiences of displacement are marginalized in both research and literature, which subsequently affects their participation and agency in political and development realms. Highlighting women’s experiences of displacement is essential in order to adopt transformative approaches to safe and sustainable IDP return, promoting gender equality upon INGO exit.
  • The recent crisis of displacement has contributed to the increase of social tensions, in particular between Shabaks and Christians, in the districts of Hamdaniya and Tal Keif. The high rate of Shabak returnees and their territorial expansion, empowered by Hashd al-Shaabi armed groups, are perceived by Christians as a threat to their future existence in the Ninewa Plain. The fear of demographic change, as well as a strong sense of political marginalization, characterizes the Christian community and contributes to a pervasive sense of uncertainty. This, in turn, influences their decisions to remain in displacement or migrate.
  • Reconciliation efforts are critical for the return of IDPs to Ninewa. These are mostly led by International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs), in the absence of a clear policy and implementation structure of the Iraqi government to pave the road to community cohesion. In order for reconciliation to succeed, it is critical to understand the transformation of violence and its effect on identity politics and female participation, pivotal to sustainable peacekeeping.

The data for this report has been collected during the time period of January through June 2019.

The meta-analysis situates IDP return and stabilization into Ninewa’s history of displacement, which forms the backbone of the remaining analysis. The identified barriers to return are categorized into district, identity and gender specific barriers to return. Within each category, primary barriers to return are identified and discussed.

Several factors are relevant for IDP return (see Table 1). These are often interlinked and should not be understood as mutually exclusive (i.e. IDPs belong to all three barrier categories). The barriers and the solutions to overcome them are identified through quantitative research, literature and qualitative research to fill research gaps. This is carried out by focusing on the following:

  • District-specific barriers in Hamdaniya, Mosul, Sheikhan, Sinjar, Tal Keif, and Tal Afar;
  • Community specific barriers (Yazidis (Ezidis), Christians and Shabaks); and
  • Gender-specific barriers (women).

Table 1 – Barriers to Return and Destabilizing Factors


Main Barriers to Return Main Destabilizing Factors



Housing destruction

Demographic change and discrimination


Security concerns and high presence of Hashd Al-Shaabi forces 

Compensation and reconstruction needs

INGO lack of coordination with local authorities

Disputed status of the district and competition between Government of Iraq (GoI) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)



Lack of livelihood opportunities and services

Security concerns, including high presence of different armed groups, ongoing IS attacks, and mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)

Reconciliation and coexistence concerns

Large-scale corruption ingrained in local authority

Unclear justice and accountability procedures

Social cohesion between populations in East and West Mosul are affected by stigmatization and revenge acts toward the former

Risk of local political backlash against the increased visibility and influence of military and political groups affiliated with the Shia community.

Marginalization of the majority of the population (women, children and youth) vis-a-vis old tribal structures


Demographic change of the district

Security concerns

Housing destruction

Presence of a large number of IDPs



Security issues

Lack of serious investment into reconstruction efforts

Lack of HLP documentation of IDPs and returnees

Lack of livelihood opportunities causing unrest

Lack of serious investment into reconciliation and community traumas

Presence of a multitude of security forces, controlling the district’s political and security landscape in a non-inclusive way

The lack of a unified security force or command-and-control may create a vacuum for a renewed IS establishment



Main Barriers to Return

Main Destabilizing Factors

Tal Afar

Lack of livelihood opportunities

Lack of HLP Documentation and reconstruction activities

Lack of safety and security




For Single Female Headed Households (SFHHs): discrimination and harassment or worse

For youth: limited education or employment opportunities

Internal disputes within the Shia and Sunni Turkmen communities

Presence of various security forces, with the dominant Shia forces supporting only Shia communities

Tal Keif

Lack of housing, land and property (HLP) documentation

Lack of financial means to return

Housing destruction

Presence of various security factions

Demographic change effects on social cohesion

Community distrust and minority representation

Disputed status of the district

Rise in local, hybrid and sub-state forces (LHSFs) and the high militarization of formerly high-population towns

Economic disenfranchisement in farming due to explosives and lack of water

Lack of compensation and access to drinking water

–    Heightened pre-existing inter- and intra-community frictions

Ethno-sectarian Community

 Main Barriers to Return


Feeling of insecurity in areas of origin

Militarization of Yazidis internal divisions

Lack of political settlement between conflict parties, mainly in Sinjar

Trauma of the crimes committed by IS

Migration of more than 100,000 Yazidis to Europe following the occupation

Absence of justice and reconciliation with Sunni Arab


Awaiting improved security and the lack of international protection

Decreasing employment and economic opportunities

Lack of hope in Iraq and strong pull factor abroad

Majority of Christians have already left the country, creating an imbalance between the number those who stayed and those who migrated

Territorial expansion of Shabaks in Christian areas


Better job opportunities in areas of displacement

Social tensions with the returnees


Main Barriers to Return


Restriction of movement due to intimidation, assault, harassment, child caring responsibilities and social norms

Protection needs during and following return movements

New opportunities and aspiration since displacement

Unwillingness to return to old oppressive power structures

Download the report in pdf

Comments are closed.