Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Balancing the Rights of Displaced, Returning and Remaining Populations: Learning from Iraq

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Balancing the Rights of Displaced, Returning and Remaining Populations: Learning from Iraq

Article excerpt

International guidelines for durable solutions to displacement highlight the need to protect the rights of the internally displaced wherever they are located. This includes their right to return to their places of origin, based on informed voluntary choice, and in safety and dignity. While this framing is important, however, it can often overlook the rights and needs of those who have already returned and/or those who have remained, particularly if returns are presented as the sole option for resolution to displacement.

This is the case in Iraq where government and international stakeholders have prioritised this outcome as the key to success in the aftermath of the conflict between the Iraqi government and ISIS. Such a framing may also neglect the fact that return is a continuous process and, like any other durable solution, can take years if not decades to be completed. Finally, it may also miss the fact that returning to the previous state of affairs is impossible in post-conflict settings in practical terms, nor is it a solution in rights-based terms since the context was probably unjust prior to the conflict, and may actually have contributed to the initial forced displacement.

Nowhere is this clearer than within the communities in the northern half of Nineveh Governorate in Iraq. The area, which is tribal in its social structure, had already suffered considerably from forced displacement, poor infrastructure and public service provision, and general neglect in development terms. Comprising the rural, ethnically diverse territory that is disputed by Federal Iraq and Kurdish authorities, and which surrounds Mosul City, northern Nineveh bore the brunt of ISIS attacks in 2014, in some cases with neighbours and whole villages pitted against one another. Both the arrival of ISIS and their expulsion in 2015 caused further waves of displacement and return. Tensions and divisions remain both between those groups that stayed or were displaced for a short time and returned, as well as between these populations and those still displaced.

While returns to the area are slowly beginning to occur, disputes between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities and the absence of a formal durable solutions policy - beyond an emphasis on returns - have left these communities in a stalemate as to who can come home and who cannot. Fieldwork carried out in early 2017 raises key concerns that Iraqi authorities and international stakeholders will need to take into account if they continue to pursue a returns-focused policy.

Returns in the absence of strategy

While there are international standards to protect the rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), it is important to note that those IDPs who have already returned may have particular protection concerns - and grievances - against those who have not yet returned. This is the case in northern Nineveh and in the bulk of other areas of Iraq affected by the conflict with ISIS, where many groups have collectively labelled those still displaced as somehow affiliated with the armed group. Acts of retaliation and revenge against those perceived to be ISIS-affiliated (and their property) have already been perpetrated by returnees and by security forces who removed the armed group. A policy that prioritises returns without taking into account the grievances held - whether legitimately or not - against those still displaced by those who would have to welcome them back, coupled with the uncertainty of the process in general, opens the door to further conflict. …

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