• Stigma is a key barrier to the return and reintegration of those with real or perceived ISIS affiliation.
  • Addressing this challenge requires balancing the concerns of communities and survivor and returning families.
  • New USIP data and dialogues offer insights on how to address this challenge.

This year marks the 10-year anniversary of ISIS’ capture of a third of Iraqi and Syrian territory and genocide against the Ezidis (Yazidis) and other communities. Supported by the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Iraq declared military victory over the terrorist group in December 2017 and has significantly reduced and controlled the threat ever since. Significant progress has also been made in the recovery and stabilization process, with the successful return to their areas of origin of some five million of the six million Iraqis internally displaced by the conflict and the rebuilding of many of the regions that the conflict devastated.

Displaced people wait to be cleared for entry to Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)
Displaced people wait to be cleared for entry to Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

Despite these gains, Iraq continues to deal with the conflict’s most enduring and complicated human legacies. At the top of this list are the Iraqis in Syria’s al-Hol camp and those who are still internally displaced, presenting humanitarian and national security challenges that need further attention. Supported by the international community, including USIP, the Government of Iraq started returning Iraqis from al-Hol in 2021. Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement (MoMD), the National Security Advisory (NSA) and the National Security Service (NSS) play leading roles in the repatriation, rehabilitation and reintegration process. Official Iraqi and coalition numbers indicate that over 2,400 families (over 9,500 individuals) have been transferred to Jadaa Rehabilitation Center, leaving about 18,200 Iraqis in al-Hol. Jadaa is a transition facility located south of Mosul that helps returnees prepare for reintegrating back into their communities. More than 1,600 families (over 6,000 individuals) have returned to their areas of origin from Jadda.

Though gradual progress is being made, the return and reintegration process continues to face challenges, particularly related to the inter-linked issues of stigmatization, disavowal of family members, security concerns and community acceptance. These challenges are particularly visible in Anbar, the province from which the majority of Iraqis held in al-Hol originate. Indeed, USIP’s research and dialogues with the government, communities and returnees in Anbar have shown that stigma of actual or perceived affiliation with ISIS constitutes an institutional and communal barrier to return and reintegration. This article explores these challenges and offers steps that can be taken to mitigate their impact.


In Iraq, stigma manifests as discriminatory actions and inimical attitudes and beliefs toward people with traits — real or perceived — that are negatively valued by a segment of society. In the toxic political environment of 2013-14, whole Iraqi communities were collectively stigmatized: the Sunni community, for example, was perceived to be terrorists or supporters of terrorists while the Shia community was stigmatized as being anti-Sunni proxies of Iran. This collective stigmatization helped fuel sectarian tensions, creating space and momentum for ISIS’ advance. USIP’s dialogue efforts — starting in 2015 after the Camp Speicher massacre — as well as the efforts by other entities have successfully worked to break this type of collective stigmatization.

Accusations of ISIS affiliation have been exploited by political, economic, social and security rivals as an easy way to harm opponents.

Addressing stigma at the individual, family and tribal levels has been more challenging. Community and government institutions perceive those with real or perceived ISIS affiliation as either a threat for potentially espousing ISIS ideology or supporting the group or accountable for ISIS’s crimes. Accusations of ISIS affiliation have been exploited by political, economic, social and security rivals as an easy way to harm opponents.

Recent findings from USIP’s Conflict and Stabilization Monitoring Framework for Anbar — which was conducted in February 2024 in 11 out of the province’s 12 districts — highlight these challenges in more detail. Respondents from all districts placed every-day verbal harassment (42%), rejection by relatives (42%), security monitoring and harassment (40%), and lack of economic opportunities (40%) as the top ways in which stigma is being experienced by families with perceived affiliation in their sub-districts.

Disavowal: From Solution to Communal and Institutional Stigma

Desperate for finding ways to remove barriers to return, communities, government officials and the displaced have sought possible solutions in Iraq’s tribal traditions. One tribal practice utilized by these groups is disavowal (tabriya or bara’a), which initially entailed individuals publicly disavowing ISIS and its extremist ideology.However, the concept gradually expanded to mean the disavowal of family members with actual or perceived affiliation with ISIS, and then, over time, to include documented disavowal through formal governmental processes.

Disavowal through formal government process actually means informing or reporting – Ikhbar – on a family member as being part of ISIS, which carries significant legal implications for the person informed on. As such, disavowal risks not only injustice, but also isolating thousands of Iraqis — primarily male — who could be exploited by ISIS or other malign actors.

Yet, government and community interlocutors speak of forced disavowal as a condition of return and  reintegration into the community. Formal disavowal is a prominent concern of those directly victimized by ISIS (known as survivor families) because formally disavowing male relatives brings the survivor families a degree of comfort and affirms that they are keen on renouncing extremism, per interviewees. It is also seen as a crucial first step toward sustained reintegration for survivor families. However, CSMF findings show that the majority of respondents in Anbar (62%) do not believe formal disavowal helps facilitate broader community acceptance of returnees, but it does impact the extent to which survivor families will support families with real or perceived affiliation returning to their areas of origin.

Security Concerns

Anbar’s residents express concerns over security directly linked to the return and reintegration process, with most (77%) believing that instability in some form would occur should families with perceived affiliation return. Such instability could stem from actions detrimental to either the wider community —  such as social conflict, the rise of extremism and extremist groups and tribal violence — or through revenge acts of violence on returning families or their social exclusion and marginalization.

Our data shows that at least 50% of Anbar residents in 10 districts believe that the reintegration process is a cause for security concerns. Perhaps because of these concerns, most residents in the districts covered (61%) desire for returning families to be resettled in another location. Responding to this communal opposition, interviewed returnees reported self-isolation.

Security concerns also exist among families with perceived affiliation, per interviewees. Women residing in Jadaa Rehabilitation Center mentioned their fears of retributive violence occurring upon their return. As such, many wanted security actors and tribal leaders to help educate the broader community about their innocence and, crucially, to help protect them from any animosity and enmity faced upon their return.

For those who have returned to their areas of origin, security actors’ actions that contribute to perpetuating stigma are a source of consternation. Interviewees mentioned that security actors have engaged or continue to engage in follow-up monitoring and surveillance efforts, ostensibly to ensure that they are not causing trouble or communicating with extremist elements. This has entailed the visiting of homes at random times in addition to calling in men and women for questioning. Returnees with perceived affiliation advocate for the limitation or elimination of these actions, as they view them as only helping perpetuate the perception that they are engaging in illicit and extremist activities, thereby making it harder to shed the stigma of being affiliated with ISIS.

Community Acceptance

Gaining community acceptance for the return of families with perceived affiliation has been a key challenge in the post-ISIS period. Awareness-raising efforts on the innocence of these families was residents from all districts top response (58%) to lessen the stigma associated with families with perceived affiliation. This view is prevalent not only among families with perceived affiliation and third-party actors, like tribal and government leaders, but also among survivor families, who emphasize the role awareness raising can play in changing attitudes and negative perceptions toward women and children with perceived affiliation. Specifically, they note that the general public needs to be exposed to information and narratives from tribal, security and government leaders that emphasize the innocence of the returning families, promote reconciliation and unity, and prohibit verbal and physical harassment of innocent women and children.

Gaining community acceptance for the return of families with perceived affiliation has been a key challenge in the post-ISIS period.

CSMF findings show a positive trend emerging: the majority of respondents in Anbar province are in favor of families with perceived affiliation returning to their areas of origin provided certain conditions are met. Two conditions stand out, both of which assume that returnees have gone through the standard security vetting process and have been cleared to return to their areas of origin.

  1. The first, which the plurality of respondents support (43%), requires survivor families to first accept and signal their support for the return of families with perceived affiliation.

    Survivor families want their needs to be addressed prior to granting acceptance for returning families. These range from demands for compensation and criminal accountability, to the desire to be more involved in the decision-making processes that govern return and reintegration, to the need to see returning families demonstrate their rejection of ISIS and extremist ideology in some manner, including through disavowal.

    To meet these needs and assuage the impact of some issues, a reconciliation process involving survivor families and families with perceived affiliation — supported by government, tribal and civic leaders — is needed. Indeed, 51% of respondents in Anbar believe that a reconciliation process between the two groups is required if there is to be lasting stability. Of those who state that reconciliation is needed, however, a plurality (29%) does not believe the process would be successful in the current environment. The main impediment to reconciliation cited by those who state that reconciliation is needed relates to their belief in the lack of will to engage in such a process from survivor families (21%), political actors (14%), families with perceived affiliation (11%) and tribal leaders (10%).
  2. The second condition under which communities would accept the return and reintegration of families with perceived affiliation, which 21% of respondents in Anbar support, is that returning families must abide by community and/or tribal processes that structure return and reintegration. USIP supported one such local reconciliation and peace process in Western Anbar. For survivor families, these local processes and agreements are important, but they would like to be more involved in the decision-making processes that lead to how they materialize and are implemented. Ultimately, survivor families feel their inclusion is often tangential and subordinate to the interests of other actors.

    While CSMF data shows that the majority of Anbar residents will accept returnees under the right conditions, it also highlights key areas in the province where there is most community opposition to returnees: in a sub-district of Haditha called Haqlaniya (71%), Ana district (42%) and Ramadi district (33%) respondents indicated they would refuse to accept returnees under any circumstances.

Response and Breakthrough: Communal and Institutional Destigmatization

What steps can be taken to respond to these challenges? USIP’s programmatic work demonstrates that an inclusive dialogue approach can go a long way in finding consensus on how to tackle the barriers to return. At the community level, for example, USIP’s dialogue process resulted in the Western Anbar Accord, which initially transformed tribal leader opposition into non-objection to return and eventually into active collaboration with the government to enable return and reintegration, as well as addressing the survivor families’ grievances related to justice and compensation. USIP also introduced its RISE Action Guide, promoting a whole-of-government and society approach to addressing rehabilitation and reintegration needs.

Crucial to this transformation was the partnership established with government institutions, especially the NSA, MoMD and NSS. The dialogue process convened these entities with community leaders, leading to steps that work toward destigmatization, such as officials providing tribal and community leaders with information about the government vetting processes and population composition in al-Hol camp, particularly how many are children and women who are victims. USIP’s collaboration with the NSA resulted in a decree issued by Iraq’s prime minister to government institutions that directs government actors to prevent the practice of disavowal. The directive also annuls another action taken by security actors that sustains stigmatization: the requirement for returning families to report twice a week to their local police stations.

USIP’s research and dialogues also highlight that those working on return and reintegration processes should ensure that survivor families are carefully included and engaged. This directly addresses their concerns over not having a substantial role to play in the process and could also lead survivor families — and communities more broadly — to accept the return of families with perceived affiliation. It could also potentially generate the will and support needed for reconciliation and restorative justice processes — when safely possible — that aim to repair the relationship between survivor families and families with perceived affiliation. Moreover, actions that replace demands for formal disavowal of family members with disavowal of violent extremism should also be promoted.

Addressing the challenges around stigmatization, security and community acceptance is an extremely difficult task, which requires a multi-faceted approach.

Additionally, amending monitoring and surveillance practices so they are less intrusive, more conflict sensitive and transparent can help allay stigmatization. Community policing — an approach that seeks to strengthen the relationship between security actors and the overall community — is one way to work toward such an outcome. Combined with awareness-raising activities, including responsible media coverage that inform the wider community about what the security arrangements in the return and reintegration process will look like, this approach could also help quell anxiety among communities where returns are occurring and lead to communities no longer desiring returning families to be resettled in a different location. In fact, awareness-raising activities that also highlight who is returning and how, details about the innocence of returnees, and their experiences as victims of ISIS could help shift negative attitudes and behaviors that are perpetuating stigmatization.

To be sure, addressing the challenges around stigmatization, security and community acceptance is an extremely difficult task, which requires a multi-faceted approach that balances community fears, survivor families’ grievances and returning families’ concerns. Iraq also needs more specialized practitioner-based mental health and psychosocial capacity across the return, rehabilitation and reintegration chain. Neglecting these issues could engender violence and instability, thereby providing the fodder needed for extremist groups and narratives to thrive once again. In short, ignoring these challenges risks not only stymieing the progress made but also making tens of thousands vulnerable to ISIS, criminal organizations and other malign actors.

PHOTO: Displaced people wait to be cleared for entry to Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 1, 2017. (Ivor Prickett/The New York Times)

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).