Iraqi Forced Population Movements

Iraqi Forced Population Movements

Theme: Iraq has a long history of forced population movements. The present analysis is concerned with the current magnitude of these movements and their causes. Also in focus are the potential population movements in the event of an armed conflict on Iraq territory.
Summary: Iraq’s past and current forced population movements are among the largest in the world, surpassed only by Afghanistan and Burundi. As many as 2-3 million Iraqis are away or forced away from their usual place of residence, many of which live in provisional camps and require international aid for survival. Adding the displacement resulting from a possible armed conflict to the current situation indicates a potential total load of 6-9 million displaced people either inside Iraq or in neighboring states. Thus, war or no war, restoring normal conditions for displaced Iraqis would be one of the world’s largest humanitarian tasks in a post-crisis situation.

Analysis: The present analysis consists of three parts. The first one assesses the current situation and the magnitude of the number of refugees and asylum seekers proceeding from Iraq territory. The second part analyzes the situation concerning internally displaced Iraqis. The third and final part looks at the potential consequences regarding refugees and internally displaced people in the event of an armed conflict in response to the current crisis.

Iraq has maintained a position as one of the world’s main refugee sources throughout the nineties. In 2001, the country ranked third in refugee population (530.000) in the world after Afghanistan and Burundi, and second after Afghanistan in the number of asylum applications (52.000) in industrialized countries.[1]

Although the country ranked third in refugee population in 2001, the number of recognized refugees today is off its peak at around 1.4 million reached in 1992. This peak was the outcome of a series of armed conflicts – the Iran-Iraq war 1980-1987, the invasion of Kuwait and the following Gulf War 1990-1991, and the failed Kurdish and Shi’a Muslims uprisings in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The Islamic Republic of Iran is without comparison the main host to Iraqi refugees. In 1992, it hosted some 1.2 million, and in 2001, 386 thousand Iraqi refugees were still in the country.

In 2001, over 50 thousand Iraqis applied for asylum in Europe. This is the highest number of Iraqi asylum seekers in Europe in one year to this date. Over the period 1997-2001, Iraqi asylum applicants accounted for close to 10% of the total number of asylum applications in Europe (see table below).


Origin of asylum applicants by country of asylum, 1997-2001 


Asylum applicants
from Iraq


% of Total

Total Number of
Asylum Applicants









Czech Republic












Great Britain
















































Total for the Period




Source: UNHCR, 2002


If we also include undocumented persons and those not formally recognized or protected as refugees, the total number of Iraqis living abroad is estimated to between 1 and 2 million people. The US committee for refugees estimates that Jordan is hosting as many as 250-300 thousand undocumented Iraqis, and Syria some 40 thousands.

It is worth posing the question: Why Iraq continue to have one of the largest refugee populations in the world even though the last major armed conflict now lie more than a decade in the past? In the case of Iraq, part of the answer is doubtlessly that there are well-founded reasons for countries that signed the Geneva Convention to admit Iraqi refugees to stay. For example, since 1999, persons who leave Iraq illegally risk up to ten years of prison, and up until recently, seeking refugee status was subject to death penalty. The Iraqi governments persistent ethnical persecution and its assaults on minority groups, which I develop in more detail below, is also cause for concern among receiving countries.

Internally Displaced People
Apart from being a major origin of forced emigration, a large share of the Iraqi population is internally displaced on Iraq territory. The total number of internally displaced people is currently estimated to between 0.8-1.2 million[2], of which 600-800[3] thousand are located in the north governorates of Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleymaniyah, and 100-300[4] thousand in the central and southern Iraq. Included in the total number are some 128 thousand refugees currently under UNHCR’s responsibility inside Iraq –mostly Palestinians, Turks, and Iranians-.

Of the displaced people in the north, 500-600 thousand are victims from the systematic deportations of Kurds from the central parts of Iraq during the eighties and nineties. Included in this number are approximately 200 thousand survivors from the so called “al-Anfal” campaign during the Spring and the Summer in 1988, when Government forces destroyed over 4.500 Kurdish villages and killed between 50 and 200 thousand people using chemical weapons of mass destruction. A large part of this group remains in the same provisional facilities set up at the time of the deportations, and they are largely depending on humanitarian aid for survival.

A second, less numerous, group of internally displaced people in the north consists of the 50-100 thousand –predominantly Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrians– targeted by the Iraq Government’s Arabization program. The program called “national correction” aims at homogenizing the population inside the government controlled parts of Iraq by forcing minorities to correct their ethnical belonging to Arabian –people resisting face expulsion to the north or to the no-fly zone in the south as well as expropriation of their land holdings and personal belongings in the government-controlled region-. According to international sources, the program is still operational; the scale of current deportations is unknown however.

Finally, about 40 thousand are returning refugees from Iran. These refugees fled Iraq, either in intent to avoid persecution in relation to the deportations mentioned above, the Iran-Iraq war, or the failed Kurdish uprising in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Another 50-70 thousand people are internally displaced because of Kurdish infighting.

The situation in central and southern Iraq is somewhat different than in the north. The central and southern part of Iraq is the home of the Shi’a Muslim opposition movement, which rose against Saddam Hussein just after the Gulf War. Government forces successfully crushed the rebellion instigated by the Shi’a Muslims. Escaping Shi’a Muslims sought shelter in the inaccessible Marshlands, inhabited by the Marsh Arabs at the time –an Arab tribal people outside the control of Baghdad-.

In pursuit of the Shi’a Muslim rebels, and with the intent to seize control of a population outside government control the Iraqi Government launched a combined military and civil operation in this part of the country. This operation, which started in 1991, consists of draining the Marshland by diverting its water supply. As the draining progressed, and paved the way for access to villages inside the Marshlands, the military has followed through by launching assaults on villages inside the Marshlands using both napalm and chemical weapons (Fawcett and Tanner 2002). The result is a complete draining of the Marshes and the disappearance of the Shi’a Muslims and the Marsh Arabs from the area.

The available information about the magnitude of the current level of displacement in this area is both scarce and ambiguous. The US committee for Refugees conservatively estimates that there are about 100 thousand displaced people in Central and Southern Iraq. Excluding the 40 thousand Marsh Arabs who have fled to Iran, Fawcett and Tanner, in their report on internally displaced in Iraq, concludes that between 170-190 thousand Marsh Arabs are either dead or displaced. Adding non-reliable, but nevertheless plausible, estimates on the number of refugees from the Iran-Iraq war, displaced Shi’a Muslims, and victims of the Arabization mentioned above, Fawcett and Tanner indicates that as much as 300 thousand people could be internally displaced in this part of the country.

It is worth noting that Iraq has signed an agreement with U.N. making internally displaced people eligible for assistance, and a large number of international organizations and NGO’s are working to improve the situation of the internally displaced. However, recent reports indicate that the current efforts are insufficient, and that the Iraq government is violating U.N’s guiding principles for internally displaced people. Moreover, the Iraq government continues to refuse international aid workers access to part of its territory, making a correct assessment of the current situation impossible.

The Current Crisis and the Potential of Forced Population Movements
It cannot be excluded that international community’s renewed efforts to neutralize Iraq’s program of weapons for mass destruction will result in a full fledged war on Iraq territory. In the event of such a conflict, the number of Iraqi refugees will increase dramatically. Projecting the magnitude of the outflow is very difficult and contingent upon the nature and length of a potential conflict. Evident, however, is that the main burden in hosting a potential refugee wave will be on Iraq’s neighboring countries, which, according to some sources, took in more than 3 million people in relation to the Gulf War.

It cannot be ruled out that Saddam himself could use displacement flows as a tactic to undermine western public support of a military intervention, following the example of his friend Slobodan Milosevic during the Kosovo air campaign of 1999.

Preparations for a similar exodus in the event of a new armed conflict is underway in neighboring countries, and they are to some extent indicative of the possible magnitude of the number of refugees that can be expected. The Islamic Rep of Iran is preparing to receive between 500-900 thousand refugees, depending on the nature of a potential conflict. Another 50 thousand are estimated to head for Saudi Arabia. Turkey and Syria have stated that in the event of an armed conflict they will close its borders to Iraqi refugees and instead set up border adjacent camps inside Iraq. Some sources indicates that as many as 500 thousand people may head for these countries. However, Turkey alone received 500 thousand in 1991, hence, there is a possibility that more people will head this way. Jordan has stated that they will only assist in transiting refugees to a third country.

Unless the conflict extend in time, with the exception of Turkey, a direct increase in refugees heading for Europe is less likely. However, countries such as Jordan, while reluctant to host refugees, have declared that no resources will be spared in transiting Iraqi refugees. Such transits may result in an outflow of refugee beyond neighboring countries and possibly onwards to Europe. In case of a prolonged conflict, Europe is likely to see a sharp increase in the number of refugees and asylum applicants. Thus, reinforcing the increasing trend of new applicants that Europe is currently experiencing because of the conditions under the present Iraq regime. Regardless of the possibility of war, Europe should expect an increase in the number of asylum seekers from Iraq if the present conditions inside the country prevail.

Overall, available estimates of the number of refugees in the event of an armed conflict indicate that approximately 1.5 million refugees may head for neighbor countries. While this estimate is in par with the number of recognized Iraqi refugees in 1992, it is less than the 3 million recognized and unrecognized refugees received a decade ago. Adding the fact that Iraq’s estimated population has grown by 6.5 million people (37%)[5] since 1991 suggests that the potential number of refugees in the event an armed conflict may be significantly higher than the number of people the Iraq’s neighbors are currently preparing to receive.

Apart from the refugees heading for neighboring countries, the internally displaced population is also likely to increase dramatically if the conflict deepens. The magnitude is again subject to the nature and length of the conflict, and is thus very difficult to assess. Unofficial sources have estimated that only in central and southern Iraq as many as 2 million people are at risk of becoming internally displaced people or refugees inside Iraq, and that as many as 1-2 million people, while remaining in the vicinity of their residence, would face insufficient shelter due to war damages.

To summarize the current situation, before a potential armed conflict, the number of Iraqis recognized as refugees or asylum seekers together with those recognized as internally displaced constitute between 1.2 and 1.7 million people. If we add undocumented and other migrants to this number, it is possible that as many as 2-3 million persons, or close to 10% of the Iraq population is away or forced away from their usual place of residence. In the event of an armed conflict, available estimates indicate that there is a very high probability that this number will double or even triple with a potential load of 6-9 million refugees and internally displaced people, of which a majority would depend on humanitarian provisions to survive.

Conclusion: There is little doubt that the Iraqi leadership is responsible for the forced population movements. These movements are in many instances irreversible; the draining of the Marshlands is an example of this. Another example is the systematic destruction of property and expropriation of personal belongings in both the north and the south. Improving the current situation requires a drastic change away from Baghdad’s continued separation and discrimination policy and a firm recognition of people’s rights regardless of ethnicity, including full cooperation with international organizations and NGO’s with access to all parts of the country. The experience from the nineties is that the prospects for change under the current regime are small. Although, an unintended consequence of a successful implementation of U.N’s resolution 1441 may be a reinforced U.N. in Iraq, with increased capacity in operating more effectively inside the country in implementing its humanitarian aid programs.

The outlook on the forced population movements in the event of an armed conflict is not very optimistic and strongly suggests that both the Iraq government and the International community have a large responsibility to exempt available peaceful solutions to the conflict. In case of war, the scenario outlined above, while over or underestimating the potential population flows, suggests that any decision to use military force should be accompanied by careful planning and preparation in ensuring sufficient resources for what would be one of the largest humanitarian aid actions in the world.

However, even if the current crisis is resolved through peaceful means, this analysis has showed that Iraq already has one of the world’s largest displaced populations. Thus, in post-crisis Iraq society, one of the largest challenges would still be to resolve the displaced populations needs and work towards restoring their situation back to normal.

Rickard Sandell

Senior Analyst / Demography and Migration
Elcano Royal Institute

[1] UNHCR, 2002. Unless otherwise mentioned, all numbers referring to refugees are taken from UNHCR 2002

[2] The wideness of these estimates is due to the extreme difficulties in access to Iraq and the absence of collaboration between the Iraqi government and the international community on these issues.

[3] The low estimate is provided by the US committee for Refugees 2002 and the high by the UN-Habitat survey 2000

[4] The low estimate is provided by the US committee for Refugees 2002 and the high is from Fawcett and Tanner’s, (2002) report on Internally Displaced in Iraq.

[5] U.S. Bureau of the Census, International Data Base.

Rickard Sandell

Written by Rickard Sandell