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Jack McGinn

February 14th, 2018

Going Back or Staying Better: Processes of Return After Displacement due to ISIL

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Jack McGinn

February 14th, 2018

Going Back or Staying Better: Processes of Return After Displacement due to ISIL

1 comment | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

by Nesreen Barwari

Displaced family heading towards Khazir transit camp. Photo: Tiril Skarstein, NRC/Flyktninghjelpen

More than three years after the occupation of large parts of Iraqi territory by ISIL, over 1.7 million have returned to their places of origin as Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga retook areas. However, more than 3 million Iraqis remain displaced.

Duhok, a governorate with a population of 1.5 million, today hosts more than 750,000 refugees and IDPs. 30 percent of them are living in 27 camps and the rest are living among the hosting community across the governorate. Out of 5,235 dunams (1,309 ha) of land allocated by the Duhok governorate for establishing 27 IDPs and refugee camps, 3,765 dunams (941 ha) is agricultural land rented from farmers and landlords. Annually the government pays $1.75 million to the landowners. Until the end of 2017, the government had spent $24 million on camp construction.

In the context of this complex situation, what are the factors that limit the willingness or ability of internally displaced persons to return to their places of origin?

The decision to return or stay in displacement is taken either individually or by the family, rather than by the tribe or community, and in most cases, return involves all members of the family. The actors who form the primary support network for these returns are family, relatives and friends, followed by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), while formal actors seem to play a secondary role.

The Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons lays out rights-based principles and criteria to inform global efforts to support durable solutions for IDPs. It indicates that durable solutions (whether return, local integration or settlement elsewhere in the country) are achieved when IDPs’ fundamental rights are ensured.

Recovery and stabilisation of areas liberated from ISIL after military operations have critical significance. The emphasis in Iraq remains most notably on the return of IDPs to the areas retaken from extremist groups. Communities impacted by internal displacement require significant support to recover and stabilise, and also to enhance their absorption capacity if local integration is to be a viable option for some IDPs.

Security in the area of origin clearly appears as the main factor influencing the decision to return or remain in displacement. 60 percent of returnees went back because their location of origin was considered relatively secure, while 35 percent of IDPs chose to remain in displacement because of the lack of security back home. Other security-related factors influencing the decision to remain in displacement were fear of security actors – including the possibility of reprisal acts, violence, and harassment or discrimination – 10 percent of IDPs.

A high level of trust towards the security actors in the area of origin, in particular, seems to encourage more returns, and vice versa. Secondary factors preventing return were lack of service provision and damage or destruction of property back home.

Most IDPs say they were satisfied with their decision to stay in displacement; however, this does not mean that they do not plan to return at some point: 76 percent of interviewed IDPs said they intend to return, half of whom hoped to do so within a year if security and service delivery were to be ensured.

There is significant diversity among the views of different groups of IDPs in their willingness to return to their places of origin, but the conditions of return are common to all groups: the liberation of/security in the place of origin, reclaiming property/financial assistance, and improvement and sustainability of basic services and infrastructure.

Sinoni village reconstruction efforts by UN-Habitat

An example of a return case was studied, where UN-Habitat utilised a community-based self-repair approach to facilitate returns to and recovery of key areas liberated from ISIL, in this case for the reconstruction of Sinoni village, a Yazidi village impacted by ISIL. 

Under such housing self-repair schemes, materials and necessary technical support for the rehabilitation of damaged houses by community members themselves was provided, creating job opportunities for returnees and civilians and in turn encouraging them to engage in the rebuilding of their community. Adopting a community-based participatory planning process addressing five interlinked components:

  • Public service infrastructure;
  • Housing and shelter;
  • Access to income;
  • Social cohesion and security;
  • Land tenure support.
After retaking from ISIL
Building back better







This process highlighted the need to link reconstruction activities with future development plans to ensure the sustainability of gains made. Through this community planning approach, the affected people were placed at the centre of the process. Lessons learned and good practices prove that the response is most effective when people are empowered and in control of their own recovery process.

Therefore such programmes – based on the input of communities and built on existing community structures – should be implemented in line with national development priorities.

Prolonged displacement

The rapid increase in population resulted from the waves of displacement have already placed a tremendous strain on Duhok’s already fragile infrastructure and public services, and a negative impact on the security situation, job opportunities, and the broader economy.

The traditional response – humanitarian assistance and life-saving relief – is insufficient at enabling the affected individuals and communities to cope with the shocks and recover from this kind of protracted crisis. Furthermore, many UN agency and INGO work-plans are preapproved, often not fitting with directorate priorities and needs, compounded as there is not enough flexibility to change plans as per needs. The federal government in Baghdad has also neglected the IDP crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Most of the existing strategies to mitigate the effects of displacement focus on addressing the needs of either IDP or refugee populations, while the needs of the host community living alongside these populations do not receive as much attention.

Unwillingness of displaced people to return to their liberated areas is a significant challenge, creating a difficult situation for local authorities as the needs, requirements and expectations of IDPs steadily increase. In addition, prolonged stays could lead to tension between IDPs and the host community, also due to refugee expectations against limited resources. Management of 27 camps is another key challenge facing the authorities, as the required human expertise and enormous financial resources may not be available to the Duhok government.

Economic and Developmental crisis

The available resources are very small in relation to the needs identified. The economy has been detrimentally affected, and local government is being forced to use its resources to provide humanitarian assistance to IDPs and refugees. Incomes are have declined to below the poverty level for increasing numbers of people all across the province. Salaries took a sharp dip with the oversupply of labourers, existing businesses are floundering as are new business start-ups, and more people are unemployed or underemployed.

The government is not able to fund longer-term development and infrastructure projects due to the current economic crises. Consequently, the province’s prospects for development have been postponed and otherwise neglected, as the mandate of some UN agencies and humanitarian actors covers crisis response rather than building infrastructure.

Ongoing war

Efforts to remove ISIL proved difficult and costly, with the operation to liberate nearby Mosul producing more displacement towards Duhok, and creating additional security-related challenges. Survivors of ISIL atrocities will continue to suffer aftereffects requiring more specialised attention.

In conclusion, considerations around security remain among the most influential factors affecting decision whether to return. Although some areas have been retaken, their proximity to the frontline and the perceived instability in the place of origin remain the most relevant obstacles to return, as highlighted by both IDPs and returnees interviewed. The perceptions of security actors in the areas of origin or displacement play an essential role in the decision-making process of the surveyed IDP and returnee populations in relation to whether to remain in displacement or return.

Prospects of employment in places of origin and displacement also appear to be decisive factors. IDPs who have jobs in the location of displacement are less inclined to return home, unlike those who are unemployed and who may return to seek new opportunities. Farmers are a separate category and respond to different considerations.

The involvement of non-official actors, particularly tribal leaders, is a key factor towards encouraging and setting in motion a sustainable return process in recently retaken areas.

As such, shelter and settlement options and response scenarios for improving the return-or-stay process could take the above into consideration, and also provide a framework relying on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Providing crucial benchmarks to measure progress towards sustainable solutions is needed. A framework providing the following components is crucial:

  1. Long term safety and security and freedom of movement
  2. An adequate standard of living, including at a minimum, access to adequate food, water, housing, health care and basic education together with access to employment and livelihoods
  3. Access to and replacement of personal documentation
  4. Reunification with family members separated during displacement
  5. Access to effective mechanisms that restore IDPs’ housing, land and property (HLP) or provide them with adequate and timely compensation together with remedies for displacement-related violations, including access to justice and reparations
  6. Participation in public affairs at all levels on an equal basis with the resident population.

While the above provides a framework on solutions and outlines the range of activities that a variety of humanitarian, development, government and other stakeholders can identify for their engagement, the following actions are some complementary modalities to implement a framework:

  • Define the profiles and scale of the Iraqi IDP caseloads,
  • Identify and address protection risks,
  • Enable wide-ranging engagement on sustainable solutions,
  • Define the appropriate coordination platform,
  • Enhance communication including with communities,
  • and Factor-in phase out of humanitarian activities.

Options to stay in the area of displacement should be offered. Transitional Prefab Shelter Compounds for returnees who won’t be able to reside in their damaged houses in the medium/long term should be provided. Camp improvement for a medium and longer-term stay should be considered also. Minimum standards in water supply, sanitation, and hygiene promotion should be provided.

This is part of the proceedings of a conference on Responses to Displacement in the Middle East, held at the LSE on 30 November 2017. This article is based on a study which investigated and analysed the factors that limit the displaced’s willingness or ability to return to their place of origin and conditions that have influenced the decision-making process to return or remain in displacement. Indicators from the Measuring Progress in Conflict Environments (MPICE) Metrics Framework were used. A total of 299 interviews were carried out to ensure representation from the two population groups: returnees (n= 75) and displaced (n= 224) from each location. The study required interviewing an eligible person within the household: preferably, but not necessarily, the household head. Efforts were made to ensure that women were represented.

Nesreen Barwari has over 25 years of experience in humanitarian relief and development, having worked in government at the regional and national levels, focusing on public policy, leadership, and management. She is an architect and urban planner by training, with an MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a PhD in Spatial Planning from Technical University in Dortmund. She is Professor of Governance and Planning at the University of Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan. She tweets at @NesreenBarwari

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About the author

Jack McGinn

Jack is the Communications Coordinator at the LSE Middle East Centre. He manages the blog and edits the paper series.

Posted In: Conferences | Iraq


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