Despite the military defeat of IS in Iraq in 2017, the process of return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) continues to face appreciable challenges alongside the slow rate of reconstruction and rehabilitation. This section attributes this to three main factors. First, many of those that left IDP camps have found little to return to, as limited attention is being given to either services or livelihood programmes that could provide jobs and education, which in turn yields to the frustration of local populations towards the government’s apparent prioritisation of the construction of new settlements. Second, largescale corruption is diverting reconstruction funds and disincentivising engagement from the international community. Furthermore, PMF groups, local authorities and political parties all compete over reconstruction funds. Third, non-Muslim minorities in the Plains are concerned about the rural to urban displacement of Shia Shabaks, as these now wield greater influence over traditionally Christian sites, further hampering the return of minorities and altering the ethno-sectarian distribution of the area.
Nineveh governorate has the highest rate of IDPs of all the Iraqi governorates (110,316 out of a total of 324,078 – roughly a third). Reconstruction, often believed to be the main positive driver of return, progresses at a snail’s pace (e.g. repair of houses and churches, but also re-activation of social services). Almost four years after its liberation, the extent of reconstruction of the destruction previously wrought is estimated at 50 percent. Figure 4 below provides a few insights into reconstruction and return patterns.
Source: Authors’ calculations using NRC Iraq Surveys
The most salient points concerning the lack of causality in the relation between reconstruction and return are the following:
On average, the full suite of reconstruction efforts has enabled an equivalent 45 percent of previously displaced people to return. This includes a large push from governments that began a campaign in 2019 to close camps to reduce displacement.
Both reconstruction and return patterns are not linear and discrepancies exist within different parts of the region and among different ethnoreligious groups. For example, 35 percent of Christians have returned, compared to 50 percent of Assyrians and 80 percent of Shabaks.
Displacement data is also partial as it does not incorporate displacement within districts or permanent resettlement. Figure 5 below shows that displacement of Plains’ minorities continues within the Plains’ boundaries as communities move around to find settlements in places that feel safest and provide them with sufficient livelihood opportunities and services. Primarily the Christians and Shia Shabak IDPs are competing over urban centres in the Tal Kaif and Hamdaniyah districts.
Source: IOM (2019)
The main conclusion from the data provided above is that reconstruction (of homes) is not sufficient to guarantee return of displaced migrants. Return rates remain lower than reconstruction rates, despite forced closure of camps. In several towns (such as Tel Kaif, Batnaya, Bartella and others), high rates of reconstruction did not incentivise return correspondingly. This is attributed to a number of causes:
Many of those who left camps have found little to return to. The collapse of infrastructure and lack of basic necessities, including electricity, water, sanitation and medical services, has left communities in the Nineveh Plains underserviced. While reconstruction efforts are focused on rehabilitation of homes and roads, limited attention is being given to services or livelihood programmes that could provide jobs and education. Locals are frustrated by the government’s apparent prioritisation of the construction of new settlements over creating the conditions that would enable the safe and dignified return of its displaced population. According to IOM, more than 37,000 people have been ‘re-displaced’ in Iraq since March 2018, meaning that they tried to go home but left again because they found life there untenable. Nineveh had the highest number of re-displacements among any other province in Iraq, standing at 25,000. Families are migrating away from the cities of the Nineveh Plains and back to IDP camps, as urban economic deprivation is too severe. Christians and minority groups often seek asylum in European countries, the US and Australia, and nearly 100,000 have fled to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Nineveh is thought to accommodate the highest number of returnees living in the most acute vulnerabilities overall. Nearly half of the people in need have acute humanitarian needs, of which a large proportion are children. Most returnees are unable to meet their basic needs like food and shelter. IDPs, in and out of camps, and returnees experienced partial or full collapse of living standards and disrupted access to basic goods and services, exhausting their capacities to cope and frequently leading them to negative coping mechanisms, including liquidation of livelihoods assets or subscribing to an armed group in more extreme cases. They lack access to services such as healthcare, portable water, improved sanitation, education and livelihood opportunities.
In 2017, more than 57 percent of IDPs cited security as the primary obstacle to return. In 2019, they were significantly less concerned about security but rather more about the lack of livelihoods and poor financial resources. Fewer concerns about personal safety are not resulting in greater returns due to such lack of livelihood opportunities and the financial costs of relocating back home.
Source: IOM (2019). Rural Areas in Nineveh. Legacies of Conflict on Rural Economies and Communities in Sinjar and Nineveh Plains.
The Nineveh Plains feature the second lowest rate of economic activity in the country, with Shekhan considered the most impoverished in terms of per capita income and per capita expenditure. In the years leading up to the IS takeover of large swathes of the Plains, 40 percent of the population was living below the poverty line, a percentage that has risen since.
Despite Nineveh being one of Iraq’s most fertile regions, producing much of the country’s grain and fresh produce, the region’s farmers face challenges in relying on agriculture to sustain their livelihoods. Food insecurity rates are high. Inadequate policies, the dry climate, urbanisation, demographic engineering, land disputes and remaining security issues prevent farmers from making a living from agricultural work alone. In the period 2014-2017, agricultural infrastructure was damaged as a result of the fighting to expel IS from Nineveh. The group destroyed land, infrastructure and resources as they retreated – reducing Iraq’s agriculture capacity by around 40 percent in the process. Despite efforts to replenish supplies and livestock and rebuild infrastructure, farmers returning to the Plains have yet to reach pre-IS production levels and unemployment remains high. Therefore, farmers in Nineveh tend to engage in additional economic activities just to stay afloat, such as shopkeeping, basic trade and taxi driving.
Such agricultural challenges have also increased rural poverty and inequality compared with urban areas. Rural returnees rely heavily on business, agriculture/farming and husbandry, urban returnees rely more on public employment and assistance from international or local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As more of the latter is available than of the former, this further incentivises farmers to discard their lands and resettle in urban areas.
Largescale corruption is diverting reconstruction funds and disincentivising engagement from the international community. The armed struggle against IS has been transformed into a political struggle between PMF groups, local authorities and political parties over reconstruction funds. The respective governors of Nineveh have been accused by the local population of largescale embezzlement of humanitarian aid aimed at supporting the return of migrants and reducing vulnerability. Large-scale corruption – in addition to the presence of a fragmented security architecture – also makes it more difficult for international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to set up aid programmes. Interviews with (I)NGOs working in the region underlined these challenges, indicating that access is limited and often disrupted, forcing them to work undercover or through informal channels (through the PMF, for example) to get things done.
Sectarianism, armed groups and extremism are beginning to change the identity and heritage of the Plains, making non-Muslim minorities feel less welcome and lessening their safety if they decide to return. Many Christians and Assyrians are frightened of the possibility that IS will return and are fearful of living in towns adjacent to Arab Sunnis (see Figure 6). Respondents signalled that corruption prompts security forces to sell housing permits to ‘strangers’, often families associated to IS. In addition, non-Muslim minorities in the Plain are concerned about the rural to urban displacement of Shia Shabaks, as these now wield greater influence and control over Christian and Assyrian areas in Tel Kaif and Hamdaniya respectively (see Figure 6). However, low rates of return and high rates of immigration have left newly reconstructed houses and empty plots of land vacant for Shia Shabak. Shabaks prefer to move into Christian neighbourhoods – or town centres – where they have opened up shops and bought land and properties, benefiting from better employment and public services such as healthcare and education.
Several non-Muslim interviewees compared this to Saddam’s Arabization campaign when Iraqi authorities forcibly expelled Nineveh Plains residents from their homes and moved Arabs in from elsewhere in Iraq. Nineveh Plains residents, however, disagree on whether the demographic change occurring in the area is forced or not. Shabak respondents claim it is voluntary and underline freedom of movement in their native district. Christians label it as demographic change by stealth that slowly transforms the Plains.
Source: Produced by the authors based on interview data by district.