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No Place Like Home: Iraq's Refugee Crisis Threatens the Future of Iraq

Author: Rachel Schneller, International Affairs Fellow
Terrorism Monitor Volume:8 Issue: 8
Jamestown Foundation


The massive upheaval of Iraq's population that has occurred since 2006 threatens the long-term stability of the country, regardless of short-term gains achieved through the political process or military surges. Symptomatic of a destabilized Iraq, displaced populations are themselves a source of future destabilization. Many Middle Eastern countries experienced instability resulting from Palestinians displaced after the establishment of Israel in 1948, the last refugee crisis of comparable proportions in the region.  Problems originating from the Palestinian refugee crisis continue today, and the wheels of a new refugee crisis have been set in motion with over four million of Iraq's original 26 million inhabitants displaced since 2003, representing about 20 percent of its pre-war population. An estimated two million Iraqi refugees now reside predominantly in Syria and Jordan, and an additional estimated 1.6 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Iraq has a long history of migration both inside and outside of the country.  Under Saddam, Shi'a Arabs and Kurds fled to Iran to escape oppression. The Ba'athist regime actively attempted to alter the demographics of the predominantly Kurdish north and the Shi'a south.  In 2003, Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions temporarily fled the general violence of the U.S.-led military intervention.  But the displacement that has occurred since the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque affected all of Iraq's different groups in unprecedented proportions, altering the demographic fabric of the nation for the foreseeable future. Sunnis fled Shi'a-dominated areas for predominantly Sunni provinces or went abroad; Shi'a fled Sunni provinces for predominantly Shi'a provinces or abroad; Arabs evacuated Kurdish areas of Iraq and Christians have largely left the country altogether. As an unintended consequence of the U.S. invasion, Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have worked for Coalition forces have been targeted for assassination. 

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