Expert Opinion

Iraq: The displacement crisis that was waiting to happen

In January, the world braced itself for yet another, potentially far wider reaching, crisis in the Middle East.  With waves of displacement and turmoil in Iraq dating back some 35 years, and a country divided around sectarian lines, it would not have taken much to tip the balance. And tip it did, this time at the hands of a Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

Anbar, the shifting front line

At the beginning of the year ISIL joined forces with armed and marginalised Sunni tribesmen.  In a relatively short space of time, they had overrun the city of Fallujah in the overwhelmingly Sunni governorate of Anbar.

In May, tens of thousands were displaced by the Iraqi army’s violent retaliation with bombardments and shelling, including with barrel bombs, and by the deliberate breaching of Abu Ghraib’s dam by armed men. As highlighted by UNHCR, displacement then continued in various waves as the frontlines shifted within the governorate. By the 6th of June, UNHCR reported that displacement in Anbar alone had reached close to 500,000.    

Despite efforts by the army, by June ISIL had control over Anbar, creating one single stronghold placed squarely between the two, now extremely volatile, countries of Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the world seemed fatigued with news from Iraq, which was still overshadowed by Syria’s turmoil. As Michael Bates, the Danish Refugee Council's country director in Iraq, wrote in a blog post at the time: "funding has been extremely limited, the humanitarian response is slow and the needs are increasing".

Mosul, the game changer

By June, things were about to get much worse when on the 10th  yet more jihadists from ISIL spilled over the border from Syria in their hundreds, swiftly overrunning Mosul in Ninewa governorate, just north of Anbar, and much of the central governorates. The International Organisation for Migration estimated that 500,000 people had been forced to flee from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of over 1.8 million people, and its surrounding districts. In the space of just five days, the displacement in Mosul brought the total number of people who have been displaced to a staggering 1.2 million people since January.

Reigniting old grievances in the disputed territories

The recent take over by ISIL of all the Sunni governorates and of Mosul in June were a real game-changer. They take place in areas of old conflicts that have been stalemated since the end of the sectarian conflict in 2008, re-igniting deep-rooted grievances.

The fighting now expands well beyond the disenfranchised Sunni governorate of Anbar into the “disputed territories,” in the north east of the country. These areas have been contested by the Kurdish regional authorities and the Iraqi central authorities since before the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This oil-rich region had remained one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse governorates in Iraq, where each party to the dispute had encouraged their own ethnic group to settle in the territories while pushing others away in efforts to change the demographic balance in their favour.

A renewal of Iraq’s sectarian crisis, with the displaced on the front line

In an environment where demography determines the fate of the disputed territories, internally displaced people (IDPs), and their patterns of movement, take a whole new dimension.

Of the 500,000 IDPs that  fled  Mosul, 300,000 went to the Kurdish Region for refuge. Yet with many fleeing in haste, without money or identification papers, UNHCR reported that thousands were left stranded at the Kurdish checkpoint.

As a result the improvised camp of Khazir was quickly set up, but with temperatures soaring to over 40 degrees, conditions here are horrendous and there is a dire need for the basics such as food, electricity, water and shelter.

What’s more, displacement is also spreading to other parts of the country as more cities become engulfed in the conflict. According to the latest figures relayed by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq (UNAMI) on the 18 June, 130,000 more IDPs also fled Ninewa, Diyala, and Salah-ed-Dine governorates.

In addition, the ongoing risk of sectarian violence in Baghdad could spark an even bigger population movements as Shiite clerics call to arms, fueling a possible Sunni exodus out of Baghdad.  Such fears were further heightened by reports of “mass execution” of Iraqi soldiers following the fall of Mosul.

A fear of retaliation and further displacement

After the loss of Anbar and Mosul, the low-level resistance put up by the army to fight off the jihadists sent worrying signals that the Prime Minister’s authority and support were dangerously weak outside the Shiite south.  Despite this, the Iraqi military has a history of using extreme counter attacks and retaliations in such situations. In order to regain the upper hand in Mosul, civilians and IDPs fear such attacks as the Iraqi army had previously used in Anbar.

While the well-equipped Kurdish forces have moved south to secure their control over Kirkuk and much of the disputed territories, this has led them to fight against ISIL in the Christian village of Qaraqosh resulting in more displacement. Among Iraq’s many minorities, Christians continue to be particularly vulnerable to targeted attacks, violence and displacement; out of the 1.4 million Christians that were living in Iraq in the 1990s, perhaps only 400,000 were believed to still be residing in Iraq in 2013.

This current crisis is challenging, not just due to its association with the Syria conflict, but also because of the complexities of Iraq’s historic displacement dynamics, and how this has changed the landscape in the country following countless waves of displacement over the last 35 years. Overshadowed by the escalating and competing needs in Syria, funding remains pitifully  low in Iraq, but if we have learnt anything from our forays into the Middle East, and Iraq particularly – speed is of the essence if we are to help them regain some semblance of stability.

Learn more on IDMC’s country page for Iraq.