Approximately 900,000 people could be displaced in Iraq as a result of military intervention


The Global IDP Database of the Norwegian Refugee Council has now posted an updated country profile on internal displacement in Iraq. A summary is presented below. The complete profile can be accessed at or sent to you by e-mail on request (
As many as 900,000 people could be displaced within Iraq as a result of a military intervention, according to UN estimates (UN OCHA 7 Jan 03, p10). The majority of the displaced would probably flee from the centre and the south of the country to northern Iraq, in the zone controlled by Iraqi Kurdish authorities. Internal displacement could result from fighting, but also from deliberate war strategy. The Iraqi regime could force people living in the South to flee, for instance by spreading the rumor that weapons of mass destruction will be used to generate panic and instigate large scale flight (CHC 23 Dec 02).

Since mid-2002, the humanitarian community has been preparing quietly but with an increasing sense of urgency to respond to the needs of Iraqi civilians, including IDPs and refugees. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq has been designated as IDP focal point and humanitarian organizations are drawing up contingency plans. UNICEF has in its latest donor update declared its plans to assist IDPs and the World Food Program (WFP) has stocked food for 900,000 Iraqis ahead of a possible conflict (AFP 29 Jan 03). The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and several NGOs have also announced they are preparing to respond to civilians' needs in the event of a conflict. Coordinating the response to IDPs will be very challenging, as no single UN agency is in charge of responding to their assistance and protection needs, in the way that UNHCR assists and protects refugees.

War may increase the vulnerability of the up to 1 million people already internally displaced

In addition to generating new internal displacement, a war may bring additional hardship to the 700,000 to 1 million people currently displaced within Iraq. Ethnic Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen have suffered several waves of displacement over the past two decades, mainly due to repression by the Iraqi government and to a lesser extent to inter-ethnic Kurdish fighting. Shia Arab populations in the south of Iraq have also been displaced from their homes due to government actions, particularly since 1991.

Internally displaced people may be more prone to infectious diseases and malnutrition as a result of a military intervention. A war will probably cause further destruction of the infrastructure, which was severely damaged during the Gulf War and has not been sufficiently repaired since. The destruction of infrastructure in 1991 led to an overall deterioration in the quality and quantity of drinking water and the rapid spread of infectious diseases such as cholera in government-controlled Iraq (ICRC 14 March 2000).It was reported in 2000 that internally displaced persons camps built in the 1980s, primarily in the south of Iraq, had running streams of raw sewage between housing blocs, and untreated standing sewage water with enormous potential for disease (AFSC, 21 March 2000).

A UN Habitat survey in 2001 found that about 40 percent of internally displaced persons in the Kurdish-administered region lived in settlements with below-average standards of water and electricity supplies, sanitation, drainage and road access. Several thousands people still live in tents. Access to food, education and health care was however found acceptable. (UN SC, 2 March 2001).

The destruction of infrastructure will in turn certainly disrupt the distribution of food rations delivered under the Oil-for-Food Program by the Iraqi government in the Centre and the South, and by WFP in the North. The situation will be particularly preoccupying in the South, where most urban Iraqis are dependent on government rations and where few international organizations are present. In that region, the internally displaced do not even have the opportunity to access government rations, due to complex registration procedures (Fawcett & Tanner Oct 02).

The population in the North should have better access to food than in the Centre/South if a war occurs (HRW Feb 03). But even in the North, a war could create grave nutrition problems. According to a Save the Children Fund (SCF) study in February 2002, 60 percent of people living in northern Iraq are extremely vulnerable to external shock, including unplanned changes to the food ration system.

International response constrained by political obstacles

International response to internal displacement has been limited due to the fact that the Iraqi government severely restricts access to the UN and international NGOs. Only a handful of international NGOs have permission to operate in government-controlled Iraq. The government also reportedly harasses and intimidates relief workers and UN personnel throughout the country.

As the party responsible for the displacement, the Iraqi government has no interest in having its actions exposed. In February 2002 it finally authorized the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iraq, after denying entry to the Mandate since 1992. The Rapporteur was however not able to assess the human rights situation of the displaced. In his report, he deplored that dialogue with Iraqi authorities remained at a far too general level (UN GA 20 Aug 02).

WFP is responsible for food distribution in northern Iraq and for observing the adequacy of rations in government-controlled areas. The system has worked reasonably well but many new IDPs in northern Iraq have complained they do not have a ration card to access the distribution (CHC 15 Nov 02). The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) builds shelters to enable the displaced to resettle in northern Iraq on a permanent basis (UN SC 2 March 2001). Since 2001, the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) has been providing emergency relief items such as tents, blankets, heaters and stoves to internally displaced persons in the North. NGOs, ICRC and IFRC have been providing assistance to the IDPs in Iraq, such as non-food items, housing, water and sanitation.

Internal Displacement is mostly the result of a State policy

Displacement of ethnic Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians caused by the Iraqi government

The Iraqi government caused the massive displacement of Iraqi Kurds from their towns and villages in the 1970s and late 1980s. Since the mid-1970s, Baghdad has also forcibly displaced nearly 200,000 of the ethnically non-Arab citizens from the oil-rich region of Kirkuk. The displacement continued in 2002.

During the mid and late-1970s, the Iraqi regime destroyed Kurdish villages and forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds living close to the borders with Iran and Turkey and relocated them into settlements controlled by the army. At the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Baghdad forces lead the 'Anfal' campaign, destroying thousands of Kurdish villages and towns, killing between 50,000 and 100,000 civilians, and forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of villagers. According to Human Rights Watch, the campaign of destruction led by the Iraqi government against the Kurdish population can be qualified as genocide (HRW, July 1993).

Since the mid-1970s, the Iraqi government has also expelled thousands of ethnic Kurdish, Assyrian and Turkmen families from the oil-rich Kirkuk area through what is known as the 'Arabization' policy. Kirkuk has long been claimed by the Kurds as part of Iraqi Kurdistan but lies just south of the 'Kurdistan Autonomous Region' delineated by the Iraqi government in 1974.

Non-ethnic Arab Iraqis have been given the choice of leaving Kirkuk or signing a form 'correcting their nationality' to be considered as ethnic Arabs. Measures used by the government to encourage departures and prevent the return of displaced persons have included setting up military checkpoints around Kirkuk, demolishing Kurdish sites and prohibiting Kurds from constructing or inheriting property in the area (CHR, 26 February 1999). Those refusing to comply have been subjected to intimidation, arrest, revocation of ration cards and, eventually, expulsion. From 1991 to 2000, the Iraqi government has been responsible for the displacement to northern Iraq of over 94,000 persons, from Kirkuk and other cities under government control such as Mosul (UN GA, 14 August 2000, para.50). At the same time, the Iraqi government has encouraged Shia families from central and southern Iraq to resettle in Kirkuk to affirm the 'Arabic' character of the city and to prevent Kurdish claims that Kirkuk is part of its territory. Kurdish sources reported that forced displacement from the Kirkuk area intensified in 2002 (RFE/RL 7 June 2002).

Displacement of ethnic Kurds due to Kurdish fighting

Another cause of displacement has been factional Kurdish in-fighting. Two major Kurdish political parties - the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) - have been fighting over the control of the three governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Suleymaniyah, particularly during the period from 1994 to 1997. Forcible exchange of populations took place between the parties, affecting a total of 100,000 to 110,000 people accused of being affiliated with the other party (UNHCR/ACCORD, 14 November 2000). Since 2001, the parties have been implementing provisions of a 1998 peace accord brokered by Washington and several thousand IDPs have returned home. There are still impediments to return due to social and economic factors, as well as to the presence of mines (Fawcett & Tanner Oct 02). Northern Iraq is heavily mined and clearing these minefields would reportedly take between 35 and 75 years (UN SC, 19 November 1998).The region recently experienced new small scale internal displacement due to clashes between the PUK and Islamic opposition.

Internal Kurdish conflict has been exacerbated by the intervention of regional players who have all been opposed to the creation of a Kurdish state. Turkey's raids into Iraqi Kurdistan in search of PKK rebels (Kurdistan Workers' Party), as well as Iranian and Iraqi government interventions and shelling from outside the Kurdish-controlled region have all caused internal displacement.

Displacement of Shia Arab population from the Mesopotamian marshlands by the Iraqi government

Displacement within the government-controlled area of Iraq has been caused mainly by the government's destruction of a habitat that provides a haven for an armed opposition (Fawcett & Tanner Oct 02). In the wake of the Iraqi defeat in Kuwait in 1991, Baghdad crushed the revolt of Shia opponents. Many people fled to the predominantly Kurdish North but also to the Mesopotamian marshlands of the Tigris-Euphrates Delta, located in the south of Iraq. The Iraqi government then ordered the burning and shelling of villages in the South, and had dams built to divert water from the marshes. This allowed government forces to penetrate into formerly inaccessible areas where their Shia opponents had found refuge (USCR, 2001).

Drawing on satellite images, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study shows that the Mesopotamian marshlands - the largest wetland in the Middle East and one of the most outstanding freshwater ecosystems in the world - has now nearly vanished. Following the destruction of their villages and the building of the dam, most of the Marsh Arabs have had to submit to compulsory resettlement within Iraq, leave the country, or remain in the drained marshlands, deprived of their water-based means of livelihood (AMAR 21 May 2001). According to Human Rights Watch, many of the acts of the Iraqi government's systematic repression of the Marsh Arabs constitute a crime against humanity. It estimates the number of Marsh Arabs at 200,000 in 1993 and at about 20,000 today (HRW Jan 03, p6).

Political Background (1991-2002)

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, an uprising against the regime of Saddam Hussein in the north and south of the country was rapidly crushed by government troops.

In April 1991, the UN Security Council (UN SC) adopted Resolution 688, which called on the government to end the repression of its civilian population and to allow international humanitarian agencies immediate access to the country. The same month, the UN established a 'Safe Haven' in the north of the country to protect the Kurdish population from Baghdad's actions. Following the United States' order to end all military activity in the North, the Iraqi government withdrew its troops and administrative personnel from that area. Since then, the northern governorates of Erbil, Suleimaniyeh and Dohuk have been under the control of the two major Kurdish parties and enjoy de facto autonomy.

UN sanctions against the Iraqi regime have been in place since 1991, until the fulfillment by Iraq of relevant UN resolutions. Since 1996 the 'oil-for-food' program has allowed Iraq to import essential goods to alleviate some of the needs of its people and to mitigate the impact of the sanctions. The 'oil-for-food' programme has also been implemented in the region under Kurdish administration. Many international observers have criticized the dire humanitarian impact of the sanctions despite the 'oil-for-food' programme.

In October 1998, Iraq ended all forms of cooperation with the UN Special Commission to Oversee the Destruction of Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (UNSCOM).

In May 2002, the sanction regime against Iraq was revised to lessen its humanitarian effects.

In November 2002, the UN SC adopted a new resolution holding Iraq in "material breach" of disarmament obligations (UN SC 1441) and calling for renewed weapons inspections in Iraq.

The country profile includes complete reference to the sources and documents used.

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