Iraqi migration to Europe in 2016: Profiles, Drivers and Return
The number of Iraqis migrating irregularly to Europe drastically increased between 2014 and 2016. In 2015, 91,769 Iraqis arrived in Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean route, compared to only 1,023 in 2014. 1 At the same time, since 2014, return migration from Europe to Iraq has substantially increased: between 2014 and 2016, the number of returnees from Europe to Iraq through the International Organisation for Migration’s (IOM) Assisted Voluntary Return Scheme has increased tenfold (from 1,280 to 12,776)2 and many more anecdotal accounts of individual returns exist.3 These migration flows – from Iraq to Europe and the increased number of returnees from Europe to their country of origin – are inherently complex and multi-faceted. As policy responses in Europe, as well as the situation in Iraq and associated migration drivers, keep shifting, there is a need for a more timely understanding of Iraqi migration to Europe, as well as returns. As such, the aim of this study was (1) to gain an overall understanding of the migration profile and drivers of Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016 and (2) to gain an in-depth understanding of what shapes the return of Iraqis from Europe to Iraq, as well as of what facilitates return in Iraq in the long-term.
Findings herein presented are based on two sets of data collection exercises: findings on the profile of Iraqi migrants who arrived in Europe in 2016 are based on a quantitative profiling exercise of Iraqis on the Aegean islands of Lesvos, Samos, Chios and Leros. Greece was selected as a site for data collection because the vast majority of Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016 did so via the Eastern Mediterranean route, through Greece.4 With the EUTurkey Statement in March 2016,5 Iraqis arriving on the Aegean islands were unable to continue their journey to other EU countries, making Greece, at the time of data collection, the host of the largest proportion of Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016. Findings on the return of Iraqis from Europe to Iraq are based on qualitative data collected in the primary areas of return across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and in the wider Baghdad area.
Data collection took place between 2 and 29 March 2017 in Greece and between 6 April and 16 June 2017 in Iraq. In total, 413 individuals took part in the study. While findings are statistically representative of the Iraqi population on the Aegean islands after March 2016, they are not generalisable to the entire Iraqi population who migrated to Europe in 2016. Findings on Iraqi returnees are based on qualitative research. As such, these pertain to the specific sample of returnees interviewed in Iraq and are only indicative of wider trends.
Profile of Iraqi Migrants to Europe in 2016 This study finds that the majority of Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016, interviewed on the Aegean islands in March 2017, came from conflict-affected governorates, such as Baghdad (30%) and Ninewa (20%).6 One in three (31%) had been internally displaced prior to migrating to Europe, with most having been displaced to the KRI (80%) or Baghdad (20%). Seventy-five percent (75%) of respondents left Iraq after the EU - Key Findings The study finds that Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016, interviewed on the Aegean islands in Greece, did so primarily for conflict-related reasons and came from areas where they did not feel safe. Iraqi returnees interviewed in Iraq who returned from Europe between 2015 and 2017 did so for reasons tied to their situation in Europe or due to personal factors, rather than due to an improvement in their area of origin. Many migrants returned to areas where they did not feel safe.
Back in Iraq, returnees were found to be particularly exposed to socio-economic marginalisation, as they had heavily invested in migration by selling productive assets and homes. Once back, they faced limited access to livelihoods and continued not to feel safe. Furthermore, as a result of the economic burden which resulted from unsuccessful migration, many returnees were less well equipped to deal with these challenges than they were before migrating. As such, returnees in all areas of Iraq were in need of targeted support to be able to build a sustainable life. The most urgent immediate needs were found to be economic assistance, as well as psychosocial support to deal with the experience of migration and return. In the longer term, an improvement of the overall security situation in the country is needed, to ensure that Iraq can become a viable return destination.
Profile of Iraqi Migrants to Europe in 2016
This study finds that the majority of Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016, interviewed on the Aegean islands in March 2017, came from conflict-affected governorates, such as Baghdad (30%) and Ninewa (20%).6 One in three (31%) had been internally displaced prior to migrating to Europe, with most having been displaced to the KRI (80%) or Baghdad (20%). Seventy-five percent (75%) of respondents left Iraq after the EU - Turkey Statement of 20 March 2016, knowing of its existence. This suggests that Iraqis who migrated in that period were not deterred by restrictive entry policies and knew they may become stranded in Greece.
Conflict and other forms of violence emerged as the most frequently reported reason for migrating among Iraqis interviewed on the Aegean islands in Greece. However, conflict and its impact on the individual were experienced differently by Iraqis from different areas of origin. Respondents from Ninewa had been directly impacted by the conflict, with many reporting death of family members and destruction of shelter. Iraqis from KRI or Baghdad reported fearing that conflict escalation would negatively impact their livelihoods and security.
The most reported countries of destination were Germany (37%), followed by the Netherlands (11%) and the United Kingdom (11%). One in five respondents (18%) reportedly wanted to reach ‘any safe country’. The most reported reason for choosing a specific destination in Europe was having family members at destination, as reported by 25% of respondents. This suggests that a sizeable group of Iraqis who migrated to Europe in 2016 may be eligible for family reunification from Greece.
Returning from Europe to Iraq Returnees interviewed in Iraq reportedly decided to return from Europe mostly due to factors tied to their situation in Europe (49 out of 65 respondents), notably due to rejected asylum applications (22 out of 65), or for personal reasons (16 out of 65). Many returnees returned to areas in which they still felt unsafe. For some returnees, the security situation in their area of origin, such as Mosul, made return impossible, so they stayed in KRI or Baghdad. For any policy intervention this suggests that, even though some Iraqi migrants to Europe return to Iraq, this does not necessarily mean that the security situation in their area of origin has improved.
The vast majority of Iraqis who returned to Baghdad did so because their application for international protection in Europe was denied. Most reported not knowing that they could appeal this decision, and therefore chose to return voluntarily, rather than being deported. This may suggest a lack of information provision on subsidiary protection schemes for Iraqis in Europe.
The journey back to Iraq, always by plane, was reportedly easy. Thirty-four out of 65 respondents received assistance in the return journey, either by IOM (16) or by the host government (18).7 While this support was appreciated, it did not reportedly influence returnees’ decision to return. More than one third of respondents (23 out of 65) returned to Iraq without support.
Life once back in Iraq Returnees interviewed in Iraq reported that, once back, they encountered challenges in relation to limited access to livelihoods, lack of security, and difficulties to reintegrate socially and culturally. Often, returnees had sold their productive assets and houses to be able to migrate, spending on average 1,200 US dollars (USD) per person to reach Europe. Upon return, they no longer had these to rebuild their livelihoods. Lack of appropriate shelter was particularly often reported by Iraqis who returned to KRI as IDPs, who struggled to afford rent once back.
Among Iraqis who returned to Baghdad, security was the greatest concern, as reported by 15 out of 33 respondents interviewed in Baghdad. This influenced their ability to settle back into the country. Furthermore, one in four respondents interviewed in KRI reported feeling unsafe upon return, mostly due to the region’s proximity to conflict areas.
Returnees reportedly found that the individual support schemes offered by international organisations to help returnees settle back were useful. These should reportedly aim to facilitate the development of sustainable livelihood sources, including skills development and economic support in the form of loans.
At a broader level, the general sense of insecurity that respondents felt upon return should be addressed. This concerns conflict resolution and the long-term stabilisation of the country, but also, as reported by Iraqis on the Aegean islands, the general sense of mistrust towards the government in Iraq and lack of confidence that the state can address the challenges Iraqis reportedly face. Social reconciliation in newly liberated areas and inclusive economic growth will be essential accompanying elements to this development.