In December 2017, after three years of conflict which displaced 5.8 million people, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi declared victory over the Islamic State group (ISIS). As Coalition-backed Iraqi forces slowly regained territory, many people returned home to start the long process of rebuilding their lives and communities.
By the end of 2017, the number of people returning to the areas from which they had fled surpassed the number of those displaced by the conflict for the first time since it began. Over 3.3 million Iraqis have returned, the majority to areas within Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah al-Din governorates. The remaining 2.5 million are still waiting for a solution to their displacement.1 Behind these figures, however, lies a complex narrative that tells of the struggles families face as they seek out sustainable solutions to their displacement. From the experience of Danish Refugee Council (DRC), International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Anbar, it is clear that many of the returns taking place are premature and do not meet international standards of safety, dignity, and voluntariness.
Lack of information, poor conditions in camps, restrictions on freedom of movement, and the promise of incentives prompt some displaced families to leave camps prematurely despite the risks. Others are not allowed to choose, they have been coerced or forced to return against their will. Some have been blocked from returning, or evict- ed and displaced once more when they finally return to their areas of origin. These practices may amount to collective punishment perpetrated against people with real or perceived links to ISIS.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that many of these returns are unsustainable, as the security and habitability of some areas retaken by Iraqi authorities are not conducive to a permanent return for all people. As the number of premature returns increases, so too does the number of people pushed into secondary displacement.
The portion of people remaining in displacement who do not intend to return home is growing. A national survey conducted in January 2018 recorded 52% of internally displaced people in camps across Iraq do not currently plan to return.2 Without alternative solutions for those unable or unwilling to return, these families are likely to remain in protracted displacement.