Presently, c. 23 per cent of the total population of Dohuk governorate consists of Iraqi IDPs and Syrian refugees (see Box 1).‍[31] The vast majority of both groups is Kurdish, hailing from Kurdish populations in Nineveh (Tel Afar, Mosul, Sinjar and the disputed areas) or from the Kurdish areas of Syria.‍[32] Although for Iraq as a whole the rate of return started to outstrip the rate of displacement in late December 2017, since 2003 Iraq has been among the 10 countries worldwide with the highest numbers of IDPs.‍[33] In addition, the rate of return appears to be less pronounced for the Dohuk region so far (see Figure 2).

Care should be taken with the interpretation of such numbers, however, because the fight against the IS only terminated in late 2017, especially in the border areas with Syria. Meanwhile, new turmoil arose in the form of the Kurdish referendum, following which the ISF as well as the Hashd moved into parts of the disputed areas in force. In short, there has been sufficient political tension to prevent prospective returnees from going back to where they came from.

Nevertheless, taking into account Iraq’s history of ‘having an IDP problem’, no prospect of a viable resolution for the disputed areas, ongoing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, and the unresolved nature of the Syrian civil war, one might assume that many IDPs/refugees will stay where they are for a while longer.‍[34] The slow pace of the reconstruction of Mosul and its hinterlands is also likely to delay returns as Dohuk and Mosul lie only about 75km apart.‍[35]

Figure 3
The number of IDPs in Dohuk governorate from 2015–2018
The number of IDPs in Dohuk governorate from 2015–2018

Source: IOM, online: link (accessed 4 June 2018). A comparable breakdown of UN OCHA data did not seem to be available online.

It is obvious that the protracted presence of the current IDP/refugee population in a governorate already struggling to make ends meet will strain the Kurdish administration politically as well as financially. It is also likely to create tensions, and perhaps insecurity. In contrast to the preceding three factors, this one is more forward looking because a significant track record of popular protest or violent incidents between IDPs and the local population does not yet exist. However, the KRG’s lack of strategic planning in relation to IDPs, the political use of citizenship and residence in the battle for territory and identity in both Iraqi Kurdistan and the disputed territories, the recent economic downturn of the KRI and the financial crunch facing the KRG are all elements that are conducive to instability in the medium term.‍[36] Two dimensions seem of particular relevance:

First, a deteriorating economic and financial situation in the KRG without a strategy for dealing with its IDP population makes it likely that demand for housing, services, jobs and resources will continue to outstrip supply for the next few years. This is especially the case given that international humanitarian aid may gradually decrease and because uncertainty surrounding the status of the disputed territories continues. Practically, this will lead to living conditions that are more impoverished, education of a lower quality, downward pressure on already meagre wages, and greater dependency on humanitarian aid. IDPs, refugees and host communities will all be affected, but the IDPs/refugees are likely to be hardest hit. Increasing competition for resources can easily create greater tensions between host communities and displaced persons given the vulnerable position of the latter, the local politicisation of their presence,‍[37] and the current low levels of communication and exchange between IDPs and locals.

In addition, there is the significant risk that both Baghdad and the KRG will seek to use IDPs in their political fight to establish control over the disputed areas. Many IDPs are from those areas and were already under significant pressure from Baghdad and/or the KRG to clarify their political allegiance, which tended to be starkly framed in either/or terms with little scope for political expression of minority identities. For example, Arab tribes from Zummar accused the KDP (President Barzani’s family in particular) of trying to Kurdify their town in October 2017. They stated that more than 150,000 individuals had been forcibly displaced from their homes and transferred to IDP camps by KRG officials. As a counter to Kurdish pressure, the tribes asked the Iraqi government to install a new – representative – local council and incorporate their armed youth into the Hashd or ISF.‍[38] In short, it is entirely possible to envisage population transfers (including returns) being used as a political tool to achieve territorial advantages. The problem of population allegiance, control and identity in a context of IDPs has, however, several levels that increase its complexity.

Both the Yezidi and Shabak minorities are internally divided between pro-KRG groups (with subdivisions into pro-PKK, pro-PUK and pro-KDP groups), autonomous groups and pro-Baghdad groups.‍[39] This can cause rapid shifts of allegiance and surprising political events. For example, Haider Sesho – an Iraqi Yezidi – founded the c. 1,000-strong Ezidkhan Protection Force to fight IS. He was subsequently arrested by KDP security forces in 2015 and charged with the creation of an ‘illegitimate militia’ – although the real problem seems to have been his refusal to join the KDP Peshmerga forces. After an outcry, he was released. In early 2017, Sesho resigned from the PUK Central Council to create the Yezidi Democratic Party while confirming that his militia would remain fully integrated under the Ministry of Peshmerga, which itself was falling apart in the wake of the referendum.‍[40]

The level of trust between minorities, between minorities and the KRG/Baghdad, and between minorities and their mostly Sunni Arab neighbours is at an all-time low. At the same time, armed groups have proliferated in the area, including among minority groups. As discussed, such proliferation is largely the result of the need for self-defence – first against the IS, then against other armed groups (including the ‘state’), lack of livelihood prospects and the struggle for territorial/identity control.‍[41] Levels of trust are not strengthened by the fact that both Erbil and Baghdad view minority groups largely in terms of their usefulness with regard to the disputed territories rather than as citizens in need of political, security, economic and humanitarian support.

In the likely absence of a politically negotiated solution to the problem of the disputed areas (see factor 2), the issues outlined above could increasingly start to intersect as the result of political pressure, identity-based mobilisation and (in)security in a context awash with small arms, trained fighters and armed groups of different sizes and qualities. Such a scenario would not necessarily result in large-scale violence, but it could create a steady trickle of incidents – violent clashes, growing crime rates and forced dispossession – that might overtime become a vicious circle of violence that hinders reconstruction, blocks reconciliation and causes further displacement.

In brief, there is modest potential for intra- and intercommunity strife, especially in the urban areas of Dohuk governorate, which currently accommodate most IDPs/refugees. This potential is limited due to the cultural, linguistic and social homogeneity of the displaced, refugees and host communities – although there are also notable educational and class differences between IDPs and the local population.

Table 5
Protracted displacement as a factor of (in)stability

Elements of restraint

Developments to monitor

Trigger events

Relative socio-cultural homogeneity between most IDPs/refugees and host communities

An increase in intra- or intercommunity tensions in host communities in Dohuk governorate

IDP return being made conditional on clarifying political allegiance to Erbil or Baghdad (negative)

A return rate that is starting to outstrip the displacement rate (albeit for Iraq as a whole)

The rate of violent clashes in the disputed areas that affect or include IDPs/refugees

Baghdad solicits UN assistance in achieving justice and reconciliation for the Yezidi community after its IS ordeal (positive)

Estimates of IDPs vary. The lowest figure we found is 350,000 for 31 March 2018 (IOM, online), the highest is 625,000 for 2016 (UNHCR, Duhok Statistics Office and BRHA, Displacement as challenge and opportunity, Erbil, 2016, online: link (accessed 4 June 2018). Remarkably, neither the IOM nor UN OCHA recorded more than c. 450,000 IDPs in Dohuk at any point in time.
In the Netherlands, this would roughly amount to the province of Utrecht hosting all inhabitants of the province of Zeeland (as IDPs) plus those of a small-sized Belgian town (as refugees).
For the displacement/return rate: Reliefweb, online (accessed 4 June 2018); Chatham House, Internal displacement in the Kurdistan region of Iraq: Impact, Response and Options, Sulaymania: Chatham House, workshop report 16-18 May 2016.
This 2016 report suggests that c. 35% of all IDP/refugee households were likely to remain in Dohuk governorate for the next 5–10 years: UNHCR, Duhok Statistics Office and BRHA (2016), op.cit.
See for example: Mercycorps, Stabilizing Mosul: Research findings to inform the recovery and reconstruction effort, Portland: Mercycorps, 2018.
Consider, for example, the parallels between these assessments although they are several years apart: link (2014-2015); link (2018) (both accessed 25 June 2018).
The local administration in Dohuk could scapegoat IDPs/refugees for its administrative and service provision shortcomings to distract attention away from the KDP’s poor governance track record (linking with factor 3).
Zummar is an Arab-Kurd town located on the provincial borders of Dohuk and Mosul. See : (accessed 25 June 2018).
For more detail: Van Zoonen, D. and K. Wirya, The Shabaks: Perceptions of reconciliation and conflict, Erbil: MERI, 2017; Van Zoonen, D. and K. Wirya, The Yazidis: Perceptions of reconciliation and conflict, Erbil: MERI, 2017.
See: link (accessed 25 June 2018); on the distinction between KPD, PUK and KRG Peshmerga: Fliervoet (2018), op.cit. Technically, the Ministry of Peshmerga commands about a third of all Kurdish Peshmerga forces that had been integrated under a single banner to fight the IS more effectively. The remaining Peshmerga forces belong to either the KDP or PUK.
Gaston and Derzsi-Horváth (2018), op.cit.