Comparing the Experiences of Internally Displaced Persons in Urban vs. Rural Areas: Findings from a Longitudinal Study in Iraq, 2015-2017

Rochelle Davis, Salma Al-Shami, Grace Benton, Jake Moran, Caila McHugh, Nicole Ruggiero, Moez Hayat


Background paper for the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019


This paper examines the experiences of non-camp Iraqi IDPs. Drawing on panel data from a longitudinal study conducted by IOM and Georgetown University, the authors analyze the experiences of IDPs in terms of their livelihoods, standards of living, security and social cohesion. The authors find that experiences of IDPs vary depending on whether they have been displaced to an urban or rural location. For IDPs displaced to urban locations, experiences vary depending on whether they have rural or urban backgrounds. Key findings include:

  • IDPs described several obstacles to establishing livelihoods including: mismatch of skills to job opportunities in displacement locations; lack of tools, equipment and inventories that had been left behind or destroyed; and a labor surplus in governates hosting displaced populations. In the Kurdistan Region, there are also regulatory restrictions that may prevent IDPs working in their field, e.g. a Kurdish-language requirement for doctors.
  • In the absence of jobs in agriculture, business, or the public sector, most urban and rural IDPs found employment in the informal sector, often through social connections. Urban IDPs rely primarily on informal commerce (45 percent of urban IDPs) and business (19 percent), and to a lesser degree on public sector jobs (14 percent) and pensions (11 percent). Rural IDPs rely primarily on informal commerce (39 percent of rural IDPs) and public sector jobs (28 percent), and to a lesser extent on business (14 percent) and pensions (7.5 percent). In most cases, public sector employees were able to maintain their employment in displacement locations; approximately 20 percent of urban IDPs and 23 percent of rural IDPs said they held government jobs prior to displacement. Only 4 percent of IDPs worked in agriculture, compared to 23 percent prior to displacement.
  • Urban displacement provided some opportunities for IDPs, particularly women and young people. Women are entering the labor market and acquiring skills. Young people displaced from rural areas have greater access to services, job opportunities, and educational opportunities.
  • More than 70 percent of IDPs reported being able to provide for their basic needs (housing, food and water, health care, and education). Among those displaced to urban areas, a slightly higher share of those originally from urban areas said their situations had deteriorated (35 percent) compared to those originally from rural areas (27 percent), possibly because of poorer living conditions in rural areas. IDPs perceive that host communities are better off (more frequently reported by rural IDPs than urban IDPs). While many IDPs owned houses or land in their rural homes, in displacement they paid a significant portion of their income every month to rent (and often to live in lower quality homes or in shared homes). High rents were often cited as a reason for secondary movements.
  • Nearly 30 percent of IDPs reported cutting back on food and other expenses; few IDPs reported pulling children out of school. Borrowing or receiving money was the most common strategy to help meet basic needs (55 percent of urban IDPs and 48 percent of rural IDPs). While more than 90 percent of IDPs reported needing to borrow money, less than half were able to do so. Over 90 percent of IDPs reported not receiving aid, and when they do (usually food and water), it is intermittent (more frequently reported among rural IDPs).
  • Over 90 percent of IDPs reported feeling completely or moderately safe in their host communities. However, only one third of urban IDPs, compared to nearly half of rural IDPs, reported feeling completely safe. The majority of urban IDPs reported feeling moderately safe. In the absence of personal networks or tribal affiliations to solve problems, IDPs turned to state institutions. However, trust in state institutions was significantly lower among urban IDPs.
  • Most IDPs felt strongly or somewhat accepted by the host community, though strong feelings of acceptance were higher among rural IDPs. IDPs from rural areas living in urban areas reported feeling accepted at lower rates than urban-urban IDPs. The extent of IDP integration into host communities varied widely. Among urban IDPs, pre-existing familial ties, humanitarian gestures initiated by the host community, and the urban environment itself (which offers job and educational opportunities) were commonly mentioned as factors that facilitated assimilation. IDPs mentioned that legal hurdles, discrimination, and cultural and linguistic barriers impeded their integration.

The authors argue for a shift from humanitarian aid to development assistance, echoing IDPs’ calls for new business development loans/grants, housing projects, and employment projects that help rebuild destroyed areas. They argue that IDPs who worked in agricultural are likely to remain in urban areas unless they are given considerable assistance to make their land safe again (demining and unexploded ordinance removal), restore destroyed land improvements (e.g. irrigation) and replace damaged machinery. Strong feelings of safety, security, and acceptance offer an excellent opportunity to build new civil society and community institutions (e.g. community centers, youth clubs, etc.). Unlike many IDP situations, IDPs are not at odds with their government, and the authors call for continued support to Iraqi government initiatives to support IDPs.