Some Brush Strokes on Urban Displacement and Dynamics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

For the first time, after the completion of a profiling exercise Social Inquiry was a part of, local and regional authorities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as well as the humanitarian actors operating there now have in their hands a great deal of data and analysis on the dynamics of urban displacement. A large bulk of the 3.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq since late 2013 are sheltered in the Kurdistan Region (in addition to the quarter of a million Syrian refugees also displaced here), but just 22% of them are in camps designed to shelter them and provide short-term assistance. The remaining displaced households are scattered across the territory, co-existing with the host community, sharing urban space. The dynamics in these urban areas are much more complex than those we find in camps, because the challenges inherent from displacement are mixed with existing challenges the host community faces on a daily basis –such as constrained public services, underdeveloped private sector, very high rents due to a real estate bubble, or any combination of these or other factors that cannot be sustainably resolved with short-term humanitarian assistance.

So, coming back to the purpose of this post, governmental, humanitarian and development agencies have statistically comparable information on the living situation of IDPs and refugees vis-à-vis host community households, as well as the situation of people residing in the three governorate capital cities (Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimaniya) against those in the capital peripheries and nearby towns (basically, the outskirts of cities, where most of the IDPs settled after fleeing). Findings for Erbil Governorate were officially launched in June 2016, and we hope the assessments for Duhok and Sulaimaniya Governorates will be released by September or October. The full dataset for all three governorates may also be made public in the near future as well. This creates a new and more nuanced evidence-base from which these actors can develop actionable, realistic, and holistic policies.

Here are our 4 take-away points on urban dynamics from this data that should be kept in mind for these purposes (note: this is specifically for the Erbil Governorate assessment).

First, on housing and urban mobility. The influx of displaced populations into Erbil Governorate brought with it a dramatic and sudden increase in the number of residents in most neighborhoods, especially in the periphery of the capital city. The outskirts attracted most of the IDPs and refugees given their larger availability of space and affordable rents, coupled with the fact that they are fairly well connected with the urban center. However, many neighborhoods and towns, such as Baharka, Khabat or Shaqlawa, nearly doubled their population with the arrival of displaced households. All of this put strong pressure on the built environment, especially in the periphery, as the availability of affordable housing proved insufficient in the end for the sudden population increase –and the word “affordable” is very important in an area that has experienced an extraordinary bubble of luxury housing.

As a result, overcrowding in existing dwellings is rampant and it is a serious concern to contend with, because as the quality of living conditions significantly decreases, pockets of vulnerability emerge –for IDPs, refugees and host community alike. This then causes further forced mobility within urban areas on its own and also triggers evictions. Rates of eviction during the 12 months preceding our survey were 8% for those households renting the dwelling. The vast majority were evicted due to not being able to pay rent, implying that significant numbers of families are consequently pushed out to cheaper, less well-served districts.

Second, on employability. Syrian refugee households showed a great capacity to adapt to their conditions in displacement and are able to parlay that into an advantage in terms of livelihoods. We saw that about 80% of the male adult population is currently employed, with 10% looking for job and another 10% inactive –being students, disabled or retired. 80% is an extraordinarily high rate, when compared to the 60% rate of IDPs and host community members –and actually anywhere else in the world. (Note: employment rates for women remain very low for all population groups.) After 4 years of displacement, Syrians settled in Erbil for its economic opportunities, rather than safe havens. However, such high employment rates come at a huge cost. About 43% of boys aged 10 to 14 and 98% of those aged 15 to 19 do not attend school. Incentives to work are clearly higher than those for education.

Third, on social cohesion. Pre-existing distrust and tensions between the host community and the displaced population has been ratcheting up as competition for housing, employment and services increase. This is most pronounced between the Sunni Kurd host community and Sunni Arab IDPs. Fortunately, for the moment, there is no overt opposition from the host community in taking in displaced populations nor has anyone across groups reported feeling a sense of insecurity in daily life. But the lack of interaction between groups beyond the transactional (e.g., in markets or hospitals) coupled with a lack of understanding of each others’ needs and respective hardships is increasingly polarizing host and displaced communities, to the extent that we find that none feel they are being treated equally nor have the same rights in their day-to-day co-existence in the urban space. These dynamics have yielded a negative reaction from the host community, who favor solutions to urban displacement that include segregating displaced communities, in particular Arab IDPs, into separate, specifically designated places outside of the urban areas, so that “there is no mixing.” Space for other more right-based solutions, that involve inter-community dialogue and cooperation, is gradually disappearing.

Finally, on the challenges for return. The process of displaced households returning to their areas of origin proved to be unstraightforward. Those displaced households willing to return to Syria or the rest of Iraq face significant challenges, even upon stabilization of those areas. These challenges are likely insurmountable for these families alone in the medium-term. To start with, most areas of origin are still not free of open conflict or cleared of hostile armed groups. In Iraq, stabilization processes have just started and it will take time for security to be trusted and damaged infrastructure to be reconstructed. Furthermore, return is also a costly process. Families need to be able to afford transport back to their homes and cover costs for the rehabilitation of their properties there. Lastly, families need also to be able to reclaim their properties back home. Due to widespread destruction of built structures and the fact that some areas are disputed between different ethnic-religious groups or tribes, many families may face issues in reclaiming and proving the legal ownership of their properties –not recognizing this may totally impede the ability to return.

Social Inquiry