This study looks at the reintegration of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq after the government declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2017. What are some of the major challenges that IDPs and those attempting to assist them—such as governments and humanitarian organizations—face when trying to reintegrate them into their places of origin, both in Iraq and more generally?
Adam Lichtenheld: There are several major challenges that IDPs and other displaced populations (such as refugees) face when trying to return and reintegrate. The first relates to material conditions in their home areas. The fighting that caused people to flee often wreaks havoc on local infrastructure and markets. Once the fighting ends, damage to people’s homes, along with a lack of livelihood opportunities and basic services—electricity, water, sanitation—can make it difficult for people to go home and rebuild their lives. A second challenge is insecurity. Even if military operations have ended, armed groups may continue to roam and compete for influence in areas of return. The government may have yet to establish control over these areas, or—depending on the context—its forces may be the very perpetrators of the violence or abuses that uprooted people in the first place. This can create fear and uncertainty among the displaced and deter them from going home.
A third barrier to the sustainable return and reintegration of the displaced relates to social tensions. These tensions often reflect the divisions between individuals, groups, and communities that are both a contributor to, and a consequence of, the conflict that triggered displacement. In Iraq, a lack of social acceptance—or the willingness of individuals and communities to welcome and live alongside returnees—has proven to be a major impediment to return. In particular, people have refused to accept returnees who they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as being supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS) or complicit in its atrocities. This has discouraged or prevented thousands of IDPs from going home, or caused them to be re-displaced after attempting to return. These tensions have also sparked violent clashes between different ethnic and religious communities, contributing to further insecurity in areas of return.
In many return situations, governments and humanitarian organizations tend to focus on addressing the first two challenges I mentioned—by turning the lights back on, rebuilding damaged infrastructure, providing emergency shelter, or (in the case of the government) dispatching forces to improve security. These tasks are essential. But ensuring durable solutions to displacement also requires overcoming the social barriers to return, which is typically a more complex endeavor than rebuilding houses or fixing electrical grids. This is why we focused our research on these barriers. Understanding and addressing them is not only important for ending displacement; it is also critical for promoting reconciliation and preventing future violence in places like Iraq.
As part of this project, you surveyed over 500 Yazidi households in Sinjar, Iraq—a religious community and area that were systematically persecuted by ISIS—to understand the conditions under which residents would be more likely to accept returnees. What were the primary findings from this project?
AL: Our study had three main findings. First, in a survey experiment where we randomly manipulated key characteristics of a hypothetical returnee, we found that returnees’ movement patterns during ISIS’s rule in Iraq—whether they fled immediately when ISIS took over or stayed and lived under ISIS before fleeing later—played a much bigger role in their likelihood of social acceptance than their ethnic or religious identity. Our respondents were only moderately more accepting of Kurdish returnees than Sunni Arab returnees. But they were nearly twice as likely to accept “leavers” than “stayers.” When asked to explain their answers, many respondents assumed that those who did not flee ISIS and lived under its rule were supporters or collaborators of the group, which is consistent with anecdotal reporting from Iraq.
Second, we found that a sense of shared suffering under ISIS made Yazidis, particularly men, more likely to accept Sunni returnees. Exposing respondents to an “inclusive victimhood narrative”—one that reminded them that Sunnis also suffered under ISIS—increased social acceptance by male respondents up to 16 percentage points. But the effect was much smaller for female respondents, who were less accepting of returnees in general.
Third, we found that respondents (both male and female) who were displaced with Sunnis and interacted with them more frequently were more likely to accept Sunni returnees. In-depth interviews we conducted separately with community leaders in Sinjar indicated that Yazidis who were displaced with Sunnis may have observed the hardships they endured directly, increasing feelings of empathy and solidarity, and making them more sympathetic to Sunni returnees.
How do these findings complement the existing literature on forced displacement and reintegration?
AL: These findings deepen our understanding of the politicalconsequences of displacement, the social barriers to return and reintegration, and possible solutions for overcoming these challenges.
First, they demonstrate that people’s movements patterns in wartime alone can have a causal effect on whether they are welcomed home. This provides further (experimental) evidence of what I call “guilt by location,” or the idea that whether people flee conflict, and where they go, are often perceived to be political acts, which can create tension between “stayers” and “leavers.” As I have shown elsewhere, this phenomenon is not unique to Iraq. These displacement-related cleavages can influence wartime dynamics and significantly complicate post-conflict processes related to reconciliation, reintegration, and peacebuilding.
Despite these challenges, our findings also suggest that, even among a heavily persecuted population in a highly polarized sectarian environment, it is possible to improve the prospects of sustainable return and reintegration of the displaced. Yet these prospects can vary widely among different population groups; in our case, we find significant differences by gender. Further research is needed to better understand some of the mechanisms underlying our results, and to test whether interventions that aim to facilitate return and reintegration by, for example, fostering inclusive perceptions of victimhood, actually achieve these outcomes in both the short- and long-term.
What are the implications of the project’s findings for governments, donors, and aid organizations facilitating the return of IDPs to their places of origin in Iraq and, if applicable, in other countries around the world?
AL: This study was limited to one population in one governorate in Iraq, so we need to be careful not to over-extrapolate from our findings or claim that they are generalizable to other contexts. That said, we focused this research on Yazidi communities in Sinjar in part because it presented a “hard case” of return and reintegration. Because of Sinjar’s ethnic and religious diversity, and the atrocities that ISIS perpetrated against the Yazidis—which the United Nations has classified as genocide—promoting social acceptance of Sunni returnees among Yazidi communities is a particular challenge. Even before ISIS, Yazidis were marginalized and routinely attacked by other groups, including Sunni extremists, making them increasingly wary of outsiders. Therefore, understanding how to improve the prospects of social acceptance of outgroup returnees among this population likely has implications for refugee and IDP return elsewhere. This is both urgent and timely, given the fact that the number of people uprooted by conflict and violence has steadily increased over the past several years, reaching record highs in 2022.
First, our research underscores the fact that efforts by governments, donors, and aid organizations to remove material and humanitarian barriers to return will not be enough. Ensuring the sustainable return of the displaced will require sensitizing communities in areas of return and prioritizing restorative justice and trauma-informed peacebuilding initiatives. Local officials and community leaders should be supported by international donors and NGOs in developing locally-rooted restorative justice mechanisms—mediation, truth-telling circles, and public commemorations—that aim to both hold perpetrators accountable and dismantle the stereotypes and beliefs that contributed to their actions. These mechanisms should also seek to repair relations between conflicting communities through constructive and sustained intergroup contact.
Relatedly, governments and civil society organizations should promote inclusive perceptions of victimhood by facilitating spaces for dialogue about the experience of different groups during conflict and displacement. In Sinjar, such narratives must recognize the atrocities that Yazidis and other minorities endured under ISIS, and be conscious not to create false equivalencies between the experiences of different groups. By sharing these experiences through intergroup dialogues, public awareness campaigns, and other social initiatives, domestic and international actors can help promote a sense of shared hardship and shared resilience, and help lay the groundwork for sustainable return and peaceful coexistence.
Second, our findings point to the need to correct misperceptions regarding people’s movements and their political loyalties. In Iraq, the government, civil society organizations, and international and national organizations must aim to debunk the notion that living under ISIS rule automatically equals support or collaboration. This means that Iraqi officials will need to clearly communicate the process they use to vet returnees and proactively seek to address people’s concerns. Other research by EGAP members has shown that trusted authorities such as religious leaders can be significantly influential in shaping people’s views on reintegration and reconciliation. In Iraq, these authorities should take the lead in countering misperceptions and reducing stigma.
Third, our findings indicate the importance of gender-sensitive peacebuilding. Given that female respondents in our study were much more reluctant to accept returnees than male respondents, any peacebuilding effort in Iraq should begin by exploring and understanding gender differences in attitudes regarding social reintegration and reconciliation. This should follow in other contexts as well. For women and girls who are survivors of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), psychosocial support may be a prerequisite for any intergroup contact or community-level reconciliation activities. Women and girls should also have opportunities to shape how restorative justice and peacebuilding activities are designed, and to participate in individual and collective empowerment programs, which have been shown to counteract social alienation and other negative consequences of CRSV. This will require strengthening support to, and representation of, local women-led organizations.