Unheard Voices of the displaced people in Northern Iraq

by Muhip Ege Çağlıdil


Syria’s civil war poses one of the greatest challenges of our times. More than 11 million people have been killed or forced to flee their homes, urging the United Nations to label this as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II (Staněk, 2017). There is an unprecedented attention on those people who have crossed an international border who are either struggling to make a new home in the neighboring countries or risking their lives on the way to Europe in the hope of finding acceptance. However, little attention has been paid to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs hereafter) and the unstable conditions in Iraq.

The special needs of IDPs appear to be very different from those of other war impacted populations

Based on the author’s experience in the Duhok region of Northern Iraq, where he worked with the IDPs, the main aim of this article is to address the issue of internal displacement. While highlighting personal observations on the situation, the author uses data[1] from a needs assessment[2] study conducted in Northern Iraq in August 2016 which contains 10 semi-structured interviews and two focus groups discussions from two selected IDP camps in Duhok and Erbil. Furthermore, the author also presents the urging needs of the IDPs in Northern Iraq, which produce key recommendations to civil society and intergovernmental organisations that are eager to work with displaced populations in Iraq. Addressing and grasping the current IDP regime in Iraq is important because the special needs of IDPs appear to be very different from those of other war impacted populations. IDPs often have specific vulnerabilities that are not encountered by other civilians during armed conflict. They need medical assistance and shelter but may be unable to provide official papers, often facing problems of regaining their land and property that they left behind. Relatively many of the IDPs in Iraq may be forced to flee to the neighboring countries, especially to Turkey, in large irregular movements in the future.

Internally Displaced Persons versus Refugees

All who must abandon their homes and are forced to live elsewhere suffer’ (Lam 2015: 3).

According to the 1951 UN Convention, those who escape from the internal conflicts by fleeing abroad can at least qualify for refugee status. In contrast, those who are internally displaced often fare much worse, as they become truly dispossessed due to lack of international protection and intention. IDPs remain closer to zones of conflict, caught in the cross-fire and at risk of being used as human shields in armed insurgency (Lodi, 2016). ‘Unlike refugees, IDPs remain citizens or habitual residents of their country and are entitled to protection and assistance on that basis alone’ (Protecting Internally Displaced Persons: A Manual for Law and Policymakers, 2008). They can invoke their right to protection under the rights listed in the Guiding Principles and contained in relevant international conventions because they are displaced and thus have specific needs, not because they are registered or formally recognized as IDP.

The primary problem is that the vital requirement to be considered as a refugee is about crossing an international border. People who are forcibly displaced from their homes, who cannot, or choose not to cross a border, thus are not considered as refugees, although they share many of the same conditions and challenges with the refugees. Unlike refugees, IDPs do not have a defined status in international law with rights specific to their situation. Only the International Humanitarian Law in scope of protecting civilians during the hostilities concerns the protection of forcibly displaced persons and ensures access for relief and humanitarian organisations to refugees and IDPs in situations of hostilities (Fourth Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I /Article four, 1977). In contrast, beside non-obligatory principles, there is no legal obligation to protect IDPs or ensure their rights in international law.

A Snapshot to IDP Crisis in Northern Iraq

Current debates on displacement are concentrated mostly on Syrians and the fortress of Europe; the humanitarian crisis and needs of IDPs remain unquestioned. In Iraq, since 2014, more than one million Iraqis have been uprooted from their homes and displaced by violence (IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, 2018). Over ten million people are estimated to need some form of humanitarian assistance as a direct consequence of violence, conflict linked to the fight against ISIS, and the counter-armed operation launched by the Iraqi government (IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, 2018). Northern Iraq hosts one of the largest populations of Iraqi IDPs. Most Iraqi IDPs have been displaced by the conflict with ISIS (Ahmed and Holloway, 2017). Often, IDPs find themselves in a difficult position, where the need for proper papers and wariness of the authorities make it difficult to register. As highlighted in the focus group discussions in the Duhok IDP camp Domiz-1, most of the IDP’s are unable to receive benefits ranging from pensions to health care, and to other social protection programs because of lack of documentation. Thus, Northern Iraq faces a complex and growing humanitarian crisis. Depending on the intensity of fighting and the scale of violence in the months ahead, 11 million Iraqis, perhaps even 12 million to 13 million, may need some form of humanitarian assistance by the end of 2018 (OCHA Humanitarian Needs Overview in Iraq, 2017). Within this context, access to the most vulnerable people remains a key challenge, limiting the provision of life-saving assistance. Our study reveals that as displacement prolongs and people exhaust their income and assets, they are in growing need of assistance to access basic services. As a result, Iraqi families who are unable to find the support and security they need are running out of options and possibly forced to be displaced, cross the border, first to Turkey, then to Europe.

IDPs targeted over violence and discrimination

Our field interviews find that IDPs often displace more than once in the last two years. Dramatically for a large number of Iraqi families, displacement has become a semi-permanent condition (Abbas, N. Razaq, Naosh, Appleby, 2018). As it has been highlighted by UNHCR annual displacement overview for the year of 2017, IDPs become primary targets, and their protection becomes imperative. In early August 2014, tens of thousands of Yazidis living in Sinjar district of Ninewa were displaced from their homes after ISIS has carried out a campaign of violence and subjugation against Yazidis and other religious minorities. The report on Humanitarian challenges by Minority Rights Group International (2017) suggests that vulnerability of IDPs is further exacerbated by restrictions on freedom of movement imposed by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces. ‘They routinely suffer discrimination on the basis of their ethnic or religious identity. Sunni IDPs, for example, are frequently denied entry to Baghdad on the assumption that their numbers may include ISIS sympathizers’ (Humanitarian Challenges Report, 2017) Ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq, women, and children in particular, often face discrimination, sexual harassment, arbitrary detention, destruction of property or are denied to access to their homes. Children have been used as suicide bombers and human shields and sold at markets. Women and girls have been enslaved and subjected to sexual violence (Humanitarian challenges report, 2017). Furthermore, ISIS is not the only factor contributing to the unsafe environment. The recent military offensive campaign by the Iraqi Army and Western Coalition against ISIS to take over the city of Mosul in December 2017 resulted in the displacement of thousands of additional IDPs (Farhat, Muhammed, Saim, Morton Defourny, 2017).

Multi-clusteral needs

While many IDPs are struggling because of lack of shelter arrangements, others are suffering from shortages in food supplies, and lack or non-durable humanitarian aid assistance.  

While many IDPs are struggling because of lack of shelter arrangements, others are suffering from shortages in food supplies, and lack or non-durable humanitarian aid assistance. Over eight million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, where about 2.4 million people are in need of food assistance in Iraq (FAO Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis, 2017). Although non-governmental organisations and government funded humanitarian organisations are committed to doing everything possible to reach as many highly vulnerable people as possible, the humanitarian operation is constrained by limited access, insufficient funding and capacity gaps in Iraq. For example, as reported by local IDP camp administration in Duhok during our interview, the conflict in southeastern Turkey poses a great obstacle for accessing Northern Iraq from Turkey. Many vehicles of transportation, including humanitarian aid trucks that are entitled to carrying humanitarian aid to IDPs in Northern Iraq, are delayed to complete their operations. Thus, many food parcels that have been waiting to be sent to Northern Iraq are either expired or decayed. Therefore, there is an expected shortage in food aid supply to the IDPs. Considering the seasonal weather conditions, such a shortage would increase the vulnerabilities of the IDPs in the region. Most of the IDPs live in shelters that are not insulated, in informal settlements, unfinished or abandoned buildings. According to the site assessment reports of the International Blue Crescent (IBC), about 580,000 people still live in critical shelter arrangements as well as empty schools or religious buildings[3]. As a result of these living conditions, many IDPs are also facing critical disease outbreaks, including cholera and other deadly diseases. Cholera is endemic in Iraq and the outbreak that was declared by the local authorities in late 2015 had impacted over 2,800 people across most Iraqi governorates as reported by World Health Organization’s annual review on Iraq in 2016.

Mass Displacements and Economy of Iraq

However, tensions between host communities and displaced families are increasing due to resource scarcity.  

Mass displacement in Iraq is impacting all aspects of Iraq’s economy and society. An economic crisis is threatening both social reconciliation and economic development, where IDPs’ needs are directly creating a burden on local authorities. According to a study conducted by the World Bank in 2015 to provide the Iraqi Government with an impact analysis of the current crisis at the regional level, around ninety percent of the IDPs are based in non-camp arrangements and are supported and hosted by local communities. However, tensions between host communities and displaced families are increasing due to resource scarcity. Our study highlights production and supply shortages and increases in local demand have amplified the cost of basic commodities such as food and other basic items. Duhok region in Northern Iraq received a mass IDP population and has been unable to cover basic needs relying on negative coping mechanisms. Moreover, as reported by the UN Humanitarian Overview on Iraq 2015, the debt burden has quadrupled in Dahuk, Diyala, Erbil, Ninewa, and Sulaymaniyah governorates since October 2014, leading an increase in child labor, early marriage, and/or families promoting dangerous journeys to leave Iraq.

Key Recommendations

Thus far, the international community has failed to assist the internally displaced populations.  

With the emergence of ISIS, forced displacement became a common phenomenon in Iraq. However, worsening conditions may lead to further mass displacements in the near future, if the needs of the IDPs are not met. Thus far, the international community has failed to assist the internally displaced populations.

Based on field experience, we can re-assert the following key recommendations to the stakeholders for addressing the unheard voices of the displaced in Iraq:

(1) Addressing the needs of displaced in Iraq: Recognize and support durable solutions for IDPs in Iraq as an essential element of effective transitions, conflict prevention, resilience building, and disaster risk reduction efforts.

(2) Sharing the burden and assisting local authorities and host communities: Since the local authorities and host communities cannot cope with the responsibility alone, providing leadership in support of solutions to displacement, manifested in increased support for transition activities and durable solutions, including in terms of the integration of durable solutions into longer-term development and peacebuilding efforts in Iraq.

(3) Promoting regional equity in access to development assistance: Recognizing that IDPs often live and seek solutions in areas that do not necessarily attract significant levels of development support.

(4) Increasing intention efforts to reach the most vulnerable people in Iraq: minorities that are discriminated and suffered from lack of special assistance should be addressed and protected.

(5) Supporting non-camp based IDPs: Since most of the IDPs, especially those vulnerable minority groups are based in non-camp arrangements, special operations for targeting those in hard to reach areas need immediate support.

Muhip Ege Çağlıdil is a Master student of International Relations at Central European University, Budapest Hungary and was working as a program officer in humanitarian assistance programs based in Northern Iraq. Email: muhip.ege@gmail.com

The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of their affiliations or OxMo


ABBAS, N. ALHEMIARY, E.A. RAZAQ, S. NAOSH, and L. APPLEBY (2018) The Iraqi national study in suicide: Report on suicide data in Iraq in 2015 and 2016. Journal of Affective Disorders, vol 229, pp. 56-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2017.12.037.

AHMED, S., and J. HOLLOWAY (2017) Calories, conflict and correlates: Redistributive food security in post-conflict Iraq. Food Policy Journal, Volume 68, Pages 89-99, ISSN 0306-9192.

FARHAT, B., K. MOHAMMAD, M. HAIDAR, and SAIM, M. (2017) Severe malnutrition in infants displaced from Mosul, Iraq, The Lancet Global Health, Volume 5, Issue 12, Page e1188, ISSN 2214-109X,

INTERNATIONAL MIGRATION ORGANIZATION (2017) Displacement tracking matrix DTM round 88. http://iraqdtm.iom.int/LastDTMRound/Round88_Report_English_2018_January_31_IOM_DTM.pdf (Accessed on 4th March 2018)

INTERNATIONAL BLUE CRESCENT (2016) Site assessment report on Iraq displacements. Istanbul, IBC publications. https://www.ibc.org.tr/EN/publications

CENTRE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS (CEASFIRE) (2017) Humanitarian challenges in Iraq’s displacement crisis. Available at http://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/MRG-report-A4_english-DECEMBER-2016_WEB-2.pdf(Accessed on 4th March 2018)

LAM, H. (2015) Internally Displaced Persons: The Forgotten ‘Refugees,  Equal Times. Available from: http://www.equaltimes.org/INTERNALLY-DISPLACED-PERSONS-THE?lang=en#.Vtbi4_mLTIV (accessed 4th March 2018)

LODI, C. (2016) My experience as an international nurse in Emergency Primary Health Centers in Iraqi Displaced Persons (IDPS) Camps: Implementation of Triage and Patient Flow Systems Journal of Emergency Nursing , Vol 42 (5), pp.442 – 450.

PROTOCOL ADDITIONAL TO THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS OF 12 AUGUST 1949, (1977) Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I, Article Four), Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/ihl/INTRO/470 (accessed 4th March 2018).

STANĚK, M. (2017) The humanitarian crisis and civil war in Syria: Its impact and influence on the migration crisis in Europe. Volume 19(4), ISSN 1206-9192,

UN OFFICE FOR THE COORDINATION OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS, (2016­­) Humanitarian Needs Overview in Iraq. UN MISSION IN IRAQ, ERBIL, UNHCR publications. Available from: https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/operations/iraq/document/2016-iraq-humanitarian-needs-overview (accessed 4th March 2018).

THE OFFICE OF THE UNİTED NATİONS HIGH COMMİSSİONER FOR REFUGEES (UNHCR) (2008) Protecting Internally Displaced Persons: A Manual for Law and Policymakers, Geneva, Brookings publications. ISSN; 0403-900943

UN ASSISTANCE MISSION FOR IRAQ (UNAMI) AND THE OFFICE OF THE UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS (OHCHR) (2016) report on Yazidi displacements in Sinjar Mountain, UNAMI Publications, Erbil. (Online) https://news.un.org/en/story/2016/08/536922-new-un-report-lays-bare-widespread-isil-atrocities-committed-against-yazidis (Accessed on 4th March 2018)

UN FAO, (2016) Comprehensive Vulnerability and Food Security Analysis 2016, Iraq, (Online) available on; https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/CFSVA%20Iraq%202016.pdf (Accessed on 4th March 2018)

WORLD BANK (2015) Iraq – Assessing the economic and social impact of the Syrian conflict and ISIS – World Bank, 2015. (Online) available on; http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/579451468305943474/The-Kurdistan-region-of-Iraq-assessing-the-economic-and-social-impact-of-the-Syrian-conflict-and-ISIS ( Accessed on 4th March 2018)

World Health Organization, (2016) Iraq health situation report (Online) Accesible on http://www.who.int/hac/crises/irq/sitreps/en/ (Accessed on 4th March)

[1] This article relies on data collected mostly in August 2016, however as displacement crisis in Iraq continues sharply, numbers on displacement and sectoral needs have been updated by March 2018 based on IOM Displacement tracking findings.

[2] Needs assessments is important to provide a holistic understanding of the situation and needs of people affected by a crisis. They give the necessary evidence-base to design and implement responses that save lives and restore people’s livelihoods. This study is being carried out usnig combination of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.

[3] International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation, IBC is a registered and operational international non-governmental organisation, which addresses the mass displacements in Iraq, focusing on the primary needs of the displaced populations residing in Northern Iraq.