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.

Executive Summary

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.
  • An 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 opportunistic security actors. This distrust is a fundamental barrier to both return and the building of community resilience.
  • The dynamics of displacement and return are happening in a context and cannot be understood in isolation. The movements of IDPs 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 units from the Popular Mobilization Forces in the area, 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. Fears of demographic change and the sense of marginalization extends to other minority groups in Ninewa.
  • 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).

About the Report

This report was produced by The Middle East Research Institute (MERI) and made possible through support from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of USIP and MERI and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

About MERI

MERI engages in policy issues contributing to the process of state building and democratization in the Middle East. Through independent analysis and policy debates, its research aims to promote and develop good governance, human rights, rule of law and social and economic prosperity in the region. It was established in 2014 as an independent, not-for-profit organization based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 

About the Authors

Henriette Johansen is a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute.
Kamaran Palani is a research fellow at the Middle East Research Institute.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen is the president of the Middle East Research Institute.

Related Publications

A Year After Soleimani Strike, Iraq Bears the Brunt of U.S.-Iran Tensions

A Year After Soleimani Strike, Iraq Bears the Brunt of U.S.-Iran Tensions

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

By: Dr. Elie Abouaoun; Sarhang Hamasaeed

The January 3, 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed powerful Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil marked an escalation in already simmering U.S.-Iran tensions. For Iraqi leaders, the Soleimani strike exacerbated an already challenging balancing act in maintaining Baghdad’s relationships with the United States and Iran, with whom it shares a long border and religious and social ties. During the past tumultuous year for Iraq, U.S. forces and Iranian-allied armed groups engaged in tit-for-tat attacks in Iraq. USIP’s Elie Abouaoun and Sarhang Hamasaeed look at how U.S.-Iran tensions played out last year in Iraq and the region and if the incoming U.S. administration, and its desire to reengage in nuclear talks with Iran, could help allay the impact on Iraq.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

What Will Become of Iraqis in Al-Hol?

What Will Become of Iraqis in Al-Hol?

Thursday, November 19, 2020

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

The al-Hol camp in northeast Syria—which holds tens of thousands who were living among ISIS before its territorial defeat—has presented the region and international community with a host of thorny challenges. What to do with the camp’s residents has particularly bedeviled the Kurdish authorities who run the camp as well as the governments of countries where residents came from. On October 5, Kurdish authorities said they would release the Syrians in the camp, where conditions have become increasingly unsustainable. But, nearly half of the camps’ 65,000 residents are Iraqis, and their prospect for return remains deeply uncertain. USIP’s Sarhang Hamasaeed discusses the situation facing Iraqis in al-Hol and the challenges ahead if they indeed return.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism; Reconciliation

Amid Iraq’s Turmoil, Tal Afar Builds Peace

Amid Iraq’s Turmoil, Tal Afar Builds Peace

Thursday, November 5, 2020

By: USIP Staff

In a year of Iraqi turmoil, including protests that ousted a government and rivalry between Iran and Turkey, Iraqi tribal and community leaders are strengthening a new peace agreement in a locale that has seen some of the worst brutality of recent years—the northern city of Tal Afar. Civic, tribal and government leaders recently agreed to a pact that can open a path for more than 60,000 displaced residents to return home and rebuild following the war with ISIS. The accord also will help curb ISIS’ effort to revive. And in a startling change, it was negotiated in part by women.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes; Gender

View All Publications