Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May 2016, 08:28 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Iraq

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Iraq, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Iraq has been ripped apart by sectarian violence since the US-led coalition invasion of 2003. In the absence of stability and security, millions of Iraqis have been forced into displacement. As of January 2009, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that 1.9 million Iraqis had become refugees since 2003 and that there were an additional 2.6 million internally displaced. The majority of Iraqi refugees fled to Syria, which currently hosts close to 750,000 refugees, of whom 167,840 are assisted by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Jordan is also host to some 500,000 Iraqi refugees, only a fraction of whom (46,500) are registered with UNHCR.

Although UNHCR is ready to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of up to 5,000 Iraqis in 2010, a survey conducted in 2009 revealed that the majority of Iraqis have no plans to return to their country in the foreseeable future. According to UNHCR and the NGO International Rescue Committee (IRC), resettlement remains the main durable solution for these refugees.

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime also led to the displacement of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had hitherto been residing in Iraq. About 22,000-34,000 Palestinians were believed to live in Iraq at the beginning of the war, according to statistics published by the Forced Migration Review. Seen as being favoured by the previous regime, they have faced retaliatory attacks since its demise. UNHCR figures show that only 13,000 are believed to have remained in the country. About 1,500 of them have been living in extremely tough conditions in Al Waleed camp, located close to Iraq's border with Syria, after fleeing from persecution in Baghdad in recent years. According to UNHCR, in April 2009, 59 Palestinian refugees were evacuated from Al Waleed to Romania, where they will remain in a transit centre pending their resettlement to a third country. Another 98 refugees were evacuated in July 2009 to a transit centre in Slovakia. There are to be an additional 843 Palestinian refugees from Iraq at Al Tanf camp, located in the no-man's land between Iraq and Syria near Al Waleed, and 391 in Al Hol, on the Syrian side of the border. The UNHCR expected to have resettled the majority of Palestinian refugees in both these camps by the end of 2009; however the Al Tanf camp was closed in February 2010 and the remaining population was transferred temporarily to Al Hol, where they remain at the time of writing.

While millions of Iraqis have sought refuge in neighbouring countries since 2003, violence and sectarian strife continues to threaten the lives of the millions who chose to remain. According to MRG sources inside Iraq, members of religious and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable.

Kurds represent the largest non-Arab minority in the country (15-20 per cent of the population), followed by Assyrians and Turkmen. Other smaller ethnic (and ethno-religious) minorities in Iraq include Armenians, Fayli Kurds, Roma and Shabak. According to Article 4 of the Constitution, only Arabic and Kurdish are considered official languages of the state. The same article, however, recognizes the right of minorities to educate their children in their mother tongue. It also recognizes the Turkman language and the Syriac language, which is the language spoken by small Christian communities in Iraq, as official languages in the administrative units densely populated by these minorities. The Constitution further guarantees the right for regions or governorates to adopt any other local language as an additional official language if the majority of its population so decides in a general referendum.

As for religious groups, the majority of the population in Iraq is Muslim (60-65 per cent Shia Muslim) and Islam is recognized as the state's official religion (Article 2 of the Constitution). The Constitution guarantees the right to religious freedom of Iraq's religious minorities, namely the Christians, Mandaean-Sabeans and Yezidis. There is also a very small Baha'i community, numbering fewer than 2,000 members, and an even smaller Jewish community of less than 20 Jews.

Although government efforts to restore security and stability have curbed sectarian violence, USCIRF 2009 reported that religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq continue to be at risk of attacks mainly orchestrated by al-Qaeda in Iraq or, in some cases, by Shia extremists. USCIRF 2009 reported that numerous women, including non-Muslims, opted to wear the hijab for security purposes after being harassed for not doing so. Shopkeepers were also targeted for selling alcohol or providing services considered to be inconsistent with Islam; this has particularly affected Christian and Yezidi minorities. MRG and organizations such as the Mandaean Human Rights Group continued to document the ongoing targeting of Mandaean-Sabeans by Islamic militias, including cases of rape, kidnapping and forced conversion.

A November 2009 HRW report found religious minorities in northern Iraq to be caught in the middle of a struggle for land and resources between Arabs on the one hand, and leaders of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region on the other (also known as the Kurdistan Regional Government – KRG). According to the report, the KRG is accused of arbitrarily arresting, detaining and intimidating anyone resistant to its plans. These plans were met with stiff opposition from the local Sunni Arabs, and prompted extremist elements among the insurgents to take it out on the Chaldo-Assyrian Christian, Yezidi and Shabak communities, labelling them 'crusaders', 'devil-worshipers' and 'infidels'. According to USCIRF 2009, Christians and Yezidis also claimed that the KRG confiscated their property without compensation and that it had begun building settlements on their land. KRG officials, for their part, continued to deny any allegations of wrongdoing, blaming the problem entirely on Sunni Arab extremist groups, as reported by HRW.

The KRG received a political blow as a result of the January 2009 provincial elections in Nineveh province, when a nationalist Sunni party, al-Hadba, defeated the Kurdish coalition (Nineveh Fraternal List) after campaigning on an anti-KRG platform. USCIRF 2009 recorded that the provincial elections of January 2009 were, however, criticized by non-Muslims, particularly Christians and Yezidis, who reported being politically isolated by the Muslim majority because of their religion.

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