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Beginning in December 2013, three million Iraqis were displaced when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over parts of Iraq. As military actors have reclaimed territory from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), internally displaced persons (IDPs) have begun to return to their homes in these areas. Return is considered to be one of the three “durable solutions” whereby the displaced can effectively end their situation of displacement. Preliminary data from an IOM (International Organization for Migration) and Georgetown University longitudinal study on displacement in Iraq reveals that most returnees have relied on their individual and family resources to return and rebuild their lives in difficult security environments. Using the IASC Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons, we examine the quantitative and qualitative data with returnees to explore the material and security conditions for recent returnees and the strategies returnees employ to cope with these issues.
The three million Iraqi IDPs found safety in cities, camps, and rural areas. Our longitudinal study initially surveyed 3,854 households not living in camps in spring 2016 who had been displaced to four Iraqi governorates: Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basrah, and Sulaymaniyah. In spring 2017, the survey was done of what then constituted 3,270 IDP households and 454 households that had returned (“returnees”). While a vast majority of the households are Arab, they took refuge throughout the country, including the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI). After living for over three years in displacement, some have learned a new language or dialect, absorbed new cultural traditions, brought new businesses and food to the host communities, and crowded local health care facilities and schools, among other changes.
Safety and security is consistently identified as one of the most important factors in many dimensions of Iraqi IDPs’ lives. Respondents in our study report safety and security as the basis of the decision to leave home in the first place, to stay in a particular place while displaced, and to return home to liberated areas. Movement, whether displacement or return, is an effective strategy for ensuring safety and security, as seen from IDPs’ feelings of safety and security in 2016: forty-seven percent reported feeling “completely safe, and forty-nine percent “moderately safe.” In order to return to their places of origin, IDPs mentioned security as the most important condition for return. In 2016, sixty-seven percent cited security as the most important requirement for return, which dropped to sixty-one percent in 2017. Similarly, feeling safe and secure in the governorate of displacement is also often cited as a reason to stay rather than return home. A family who returned to Diyala governorate from taking refuge in Sulaymaniyah, said “We wish to live in Khurmal [in Sulaymaniyah] because of security, and because the people in the area are very good, and their treatment (of us) is good, but we were obligated to return because my father and all of our relatives live here, and our workshop is here, too.”
Despite security being an important condition for return, going home often lessened people’s sense of security. Compared to IDPs still living in displacement in spring 2017, 46.8 percent of whom reported feeling “completely safe” in their current location, returnees overall felt less safe with only thirty-five percent of returnees reporting feeling “completely safe.” Returnees indicated in 2017 that the authorities in charge of their area and the presence or absence of ongoing military activity influenced their feelings of safety and security. A government employee from Salah al-Din responded that “the liberated neighborhoods are relatively secure. It could be said that returnees in them feel safe, like in Tikrit and some of the other areas, and because of the concentrated presence of security forces there. As for areas like the town that we live in, despite them being liberated, they are still exposed to attacks which cause many martyrs and injuries. The most recent of them was yesterday, when twenty were killed in fighting in an attack.” The statistics and stories reveal that while safety is critical to return, people will still return despite risks and on-going fighting.
A returnee to Anbar from Basrah reported the following story that shows that while the fighting may have ended, lingering issues continue to destabilize the area, in particular in the struggle for political power and control. “In general, safety is not one hundred percent. The security situation is deteriorating because of unwise leaders in the country’s management. The best example I can give of this is five days ago; a rumor got started in Ramadi which said that ISIL was returning again. We do not know where the rumor was started or what the purpose of it was. […] I think that the rumor was for a political campaign purpose, to help a party so that there would be a lack of participation in the elections and it would get the votes from those who are bored and who have deteriorating [living] situations and those who live in camps.”
Structural problems of not being able to get access to property, such as ongoing fighting, unexploded ordinances (UXOs), or authorities not giving permission, however, prevent the return of many. In 2017, eighty-five percent of returnees were able to access their properties, while around nine in ten households that were IDPs (and movers) were unable to access their properties. These differences reveal the obvious situation that it was likely that those who returned were those who were able to access property. When asked about the condition of their house, returnees have the lowest percentage of houses destroyed (twenty-five percent), compared to IDPs (forty-four percent) and movers (sixty-eight percent).
Partial damage to properties was very widespread, which has long-term implications when coupled with the lack of housing, land and property-related mechanisms to assist returnees in recovering or rebuilding their property. The damage to buildings such as homes and businesses present significant obstacles to return being sustainable for Iraqi IDPs, complicating issues of financial stability, and returnees’ ability to secure other basic necessities, such as schooling for children and medical treatment.
Living conditions (understood as ability to provide for basic needs and access to basic services) and livelihoods seems to have pushed people to return. In 2016, 55.5 percent of IDPs who later returned home in 2017 said that they were unable to provide for their family’s basic needs in the preceding three months, compared to 37.7 percent of IDPs who remained living in displacement in 2017. IDPs who were unemployed while living in displacement were almost twice as likely to return than those who were employed. Return seemed to expand families’ abilities to provide for their basic needs. In 2017 79.1 percent of returnees said that they were able to provide for their family’s basic needs in the last three months, compared with their situation in 2016, when 57.9 percent of all IDPs interviewed who said they were able to make ends meet for their families. One story illustrates the complexity of ensuring basic needs. A former government employee from Anbar governorate said that “I learned a new profession after returning, which is construction. I was not able to return to my previous job; despite applying and taking the steps to return to the job, we were refused by the leaders of the police, especially as returned IDPs. I do not know anyone who was able to return to his previous job. Most people are not able to find work opportunities because of the destruction of the infrastructure.”
So how are people ensuring livelihoods? The most widely-employed strategy to provide for basic needs is borrowing money, undertaken by forty-five percent of the families in 2016. Notably, thus, the burden of displacement remains within the communities and their relatives. There is an understanding that this is a debt to be repaid when no longer displaced. Almost 10 percent of returnees said that if they received a large sum of money, the first thing they would do is pay off their debts. Many IDPs and returnees express concern that borrowing is merely a short-term solution, and they fear they will not be able to cover their debts later or repay the money loaned to them.
Another strategy among returnees was to sell off jewelry, cars, and other family belongings. For others, a shift in spending patterns resulted from people now living in a house they own in their home governorate instead of renting while living in displacement. A man who returned home to Anbar illustrates this point: “[When I was displaced in Baghdad], I used half of my pension to pay the rent and the rest for my medications because I am ill. Now, I [have returned] to live in a house that I own. I spend money now on medications, livelihood and other needs such as paying back debts and other expenses paid for renovating the house.” His account suggests that not paying rent allows for covering other expenses. However, a number of other respondents, in contrast, report giving up on the basics like clothing, education, and fuel, in order to get food on the table. Those families who own houses that are too damaged to live in, must pay rent as well as house repairs, which severely constrains people’s ability to provide the basics for their families.
Spring 2017 data shows that returnees receive less aid than IDPs. While seventy-two percent of IDPs reported receiving cash assistance and sixty-seven percent received food and water, among returnees, sixty-five percent reported receiving cash assistance and forty-seven percent food and water. “Other” assistance was also lower, with only twenty-eight percent of returnees receiving “other” aid, compared to thirty-seven percent of IDPs. This finding is likely tied to the security situation and the ability of government and organizations to get aid to where the returnees are, but it reveals that there is less support for return than remaining as IDPs.
A government employee who returned to Anbar described his experience as follows: “Currently, aid is almost rare and non-existent due to the conditions that the country is passing through; war and the difficult economic condition. Most of the aid, if available, is food items that barely suffice for preparing meals for two days. Most of the aid is provided by the humanitarian organizations related to the United Nations. Since arriving here, I received aid one time only. The aid did not help me because it was not enough. Some mosques distributed fuel and the local council provided some blankets, this was for one time only. As for cash, no, we did not receive anything. My evaluation of the humanitarian and governmental organizations is that they are greatly behind and short in terms of supporting returnees.” Media, NGO reports, and personal experiences indicate that services and rebuilding vary from area to area. A government employee who returned to Diyala mentioned that “at the present time, after returning, I have not received any financial assistance, but I do receive food aid from the local council here in Jalawla, in addition to food assistance from the World Food Program. Assistance is provided to all returnees here. There are organizations participating in lifting the rubble, building roads, providing water and a sewage system. These things are also considered services provided to returnees.”
The majority of rebuilding and assistance, however, is being done by individual efforts. According to the IOM report on Obstacles to Return, “Any property reconstruction efforts […] have mainly been undertaken by the returnees themselves and most were unaware of any support services being provided in their areas of return. Consequently, a high number of respondents highlighted the need for increased government efforts to address HLP [housing, land, and property] issues and many negatively noted the lack of any long-term assistance strategy and the absence of compensation schemes.” A day laborer, returned to Ninewa from Basrah, described what he was witnessing: “Most people that returned restore one room and a bathroom or two rooms to live in only. They are not able to renovate the whole house because they do not have the necessary funds, and there is no financial assistance from the government.”
Compensation will mitigate some of the negative effects of returnees’ needs given the large-scale destruction. The Government of Iraq (GoI) has provided compensation in the past, and those returning from ISIS-induced displacement often advocate for it. The GoI provided property compensation in prior crises, through the 2003 Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC), formed to address HLP offenses committed during Saddam Hussein’s regime, which to date has resolved ninety percent of the claims it received, and through the Central Committee for Compensating the Affected (CCCA), created to assist families of individuals killed or injured due to military or terrorist action or whose property was damaged as a result of these actions. In the current displacement crisis, ninety-four percent of IDPs surveyed were registered with the MoMD, and many received the MoMD one-time cash assistance of one million Iraqi dinars (about 850 US dollars). IDPs interviewed benefitted from the grant, saying that it allowed them flexibility in determining the funds’ best use: for rent, medical treatment, settling debts, etc.
Despite compensation’s potential to drastically improve living conditions and opportunities for IDPs and returnees, the process of creating and implementing a compensation mechanism for the current crisis is just beginning. The CCCA defined the parameters for compensation in February 2017 with the idea to unify the criteria across all of the governorates. While certainly far behind the timeline of those returning, the process has been established and will hopefully provide assistance to the vast majority of those in need. However, Ninety percent of respondents in 2017, however, were unaware of the compensation committees. Only 1.3 percent of returnees in our study report receiving specific compensation for ISIS-induced damage as of spring 2017. Additionally, only a small minority of IDPs (6.8 percent) and returnees (3.7 percent) who had property destroyed, heavily damaged or sold under duress, had applied to restitution or compensation mechanisms as of the first quarter of 2017.
The process of achieving the durable solution of return has been largely driven by the returnees who, with planning and foresight, are seeking permanent, long-term solutions, despite the lack of assistance or compensation during and after their return. However, attention to how returnees and their families are changed by their experiences in displacement and the recommendations they offer for how to make return successful are all a necessary part of understanding accessing durable solutions among returnees. Additionally, as many returnees note, government efforts to assist returnees will instill confidence in the government and show that non-sectarian actors are concerned about the interest of all citizens. It would be a significant financial and psychological step towards healing a national polity.
 R. Davis, G. Benton, E. Ferris, L. Rossi, & M. Cohen, “Access to Durable Solutions Among IDPs in Iraq: Part One,” (IOM and Georgetown University: 2017). Data and research used in this work comes from a longitudinal study conducted by the International Organization for Migration and Georgetown University on Iraqi IDPs Access to Durable Solutions, funded by the US government’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. All views and perspectives expressed in this article are those of the authors.
 R. Jahn, P. van der Auweraert, I. Cvetkovsk, I. Karlsson, & A. Sobierajsk, “Housing, Land, and Property (HLP) Issues Facing Returnees in Retaken Areas of Iraq” (IOM: 2016). https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DOE/LPR/Hijra-Amina-HLP-return-assessment.pdf
 IOM, “Obstacles to Return in Retaken Areas of Iraq” (IOM: 2017). http://iraqdtm.iom.int/specialreports/obstaclestoreturn06211701.pdf, accessed 13 October 2017:21.
 Jahn et al. 2016:8
 Government of Iraq-Office of the Prime Minster, “The Central Committee for the Compensation of People Affected by War-related Actions, Military Errors, and Terrorist Operations” (Annual Report, 2014), 1.
 In April 2017, the CCCA met with representatives of the Ministries of the High Court, Finance, Justice, Interior, and the Human Rights Commission and approved 3677 compensation cases. In September 2017, the CCCA branches in Anbar and Salah al-Din governorates reported that they had registered the cases and had transferred the cases to the Ministry of Finance for funding, and they would begin work in Ninewa governorate in October. All of these changes have been reported in the Iraqi media in Arabic. IMN (Iraqi Media Network). 7 February 2017. ‘CCCA of the Council of Ministers Publishes Criteria Guide to Promote Transactions.’ http://www.imn.iq/archives/121636; Iraqyoon. 11 April 2017. “CCCA Approves Thousands of Special Transactions to Compensate Those Affected.” http://bit.ly/2ym9CvV; Harim News. 19 September 2017. “Council of Ministers: Implementation of Transactions for Victims of Terrorism in Salah al-Din and Anbar.” https://hamrinnews.net/iraq-news/855145.html