Iraq 20 Years After the Invasion: Humanitarian, Displacement, and Climate Change Challenges

The U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, and withdrew in 2011, costing an estimated half a million Iraqis their lives, causing at least 9.2 million to be displaced, and resulting in more than 4.7 million to experience moderate or severe food insecurity. Today, 20 years after the initial invasion, the large-scale conflict has ended, yet Iraq remains at perennial risk of crisis. In this interview, Giorgi Gigauri reflects on the 20th anniversary; the current humanitarian, displacement, and climate landscape; and how the United Nations’ migration agency, International Organization for Migration (IOM), is responding to current needs.

  • Giorgi Gigauri is the chief of mission of the IOM in Iraq. Presently, he is the coordinator of the UN Migration Network and the cochair of the UN Durable Solutions Taskforce in Iraq. Prior to his current appointment, he was the IOM chief of mission in Bangladesh, where he was the UN co-coordinator of the Rohingya refugee operation and co-led the points of entry pillar of the UN Covid-19 health emergency response. He served as the IOM chief of mission in Papua New Guinea, working on community stabilization, peacebuilding, and humanitarian emergencies, including the drought crisis in 2015. He has held various positions in Asia-Pacific and Eastern Europe, focusing on humanitarian assistance, protection, and sustainable development. Gigauri is a national of Georgia, holds a M.A. from the University of Oxford, and speaks three languages.

The discussion, moderated by Jude Larnerd and Erol Yayboke, held on March 1, 2023, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity. The full recording is available below.

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JL: Regarding the 20th anniversary of the war, can you provide reflections on the IOM’s priorities and how your strategy has changed in response to new developments, compared to the period between 2003 and 2011?

GG: Iraq is still in transition, but so much has happened over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, we focus on the negatives, and for a very good reason. We have sectarian violence; the rise, fall, and expulsion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); and continuous problems in terms of state fragility, weak institutions, and corruption. All these things are well-documented and known. That's the area we work in.

There's been over 6 million people internally displaced after the ISIL conflict. The good news is that out of six, five have returned. Now, this doesn't mean that all problems are resolved upon their return, but they have returned and that's good news. Also, the last election was held successfully. There is a new cabinet in power, and the budget hopefully will be approved soon. There's real momentum. There's an opening to get some reforms through, following up on the policy changes, and implementing what is needed.

A part of our job as IOM is to focus on the positives, because ultimately what leads to development and progress is the belief in development and progress. Recently, there was a regional Arab football cup that was hosted in Basra for the first time since 1979. Iraq won. On their way to the final, they also defeated Saudi Arabia, who in the initial stages of the World Cup defeated Argentina, who won the World Cup. I really have never seen Iraq so united and happy. I couldn't sleep in my compound that night. There was so much noise in Baghdad all night. When I see positive developments like that, I realize that there is a rational reason to be optimistic, despite all the challenges and problems. It is the non-tangible things that can unite and drive people forward.

EY: Can you talk about the regional differences of humanitarian challenges, including more about the returnee issue you mentioned?

GG: There are humanitarian needs in many areas of Iraq. Liberated areas, central and northern regions near Syria, are specific to internally displaced people (IDPs). The conflict in the South has more to do with climate change and urbanization. There are needs in Kurdistan where there are a lot of camps. In terms of the needs and the challenges that the returnees face, it really depends on the area we are talking about, because a village in a remote place near the border with Syria will have different challenges to someone returning closer to Baghdad or in an urban area like Mosul.

First and foremost, people want safety and security. They cannot return, especially as a household with their wives and children, to a place where they don't feel safe. That is the underlying condition that was the driver of displacement in the first place. Thankfully, a lot of the areas are now safe for returnees. Secondly, is material infrastructure. If their house has been bombed out, it needs to be rebuilt before they can return. Thirdly, there must be income-generating activities, improvement in livelihoods, and availability of the most basic needs. Even if their house is rebuilt and the area is safe, they still need to be able to feed their family. That's where climate change and unemployment issues are brought into focus.

We have a program called Enterprise Development Fund that helped create over 5,000 jobs last year for returning families. People have aspirations and ambitions; they don't just want to live as a farmer. They want their children to have a better education, a high quality of life, and to succeed in general. In that sense, Iraq is no different from any other country, including the United States. The medium average age in Iraq is 22 years old. All these youngsters are looking for jobs, opportunities, status, and improvements in their lives. The IOM's job is to assist the government in creating those opportunities. We know that it can be done, and there's been a lot of progress in the past 20 years, but also in the past five years.

EY: How are the increasing levels of water insecurity influencing these humanitarian challenges?

GG: Iraq has been in the news for over the past 20 years for various situations. We think of conflict, Saddam Hussein, ISIL atrocities, and perhaps less so on climate change. It is a country that's affected by climate change, especially in the south. It's not a new problem, but it is new in a sense that for the first time in many years, especially inside Iraq because now we have a little more stability, people are beginning to pay attention.

In the south, it's not just the question of availability of water, it's quantity and quality. Sandstorms, environmental degradation, crop failure, and everything that involves water has such an important catalytic effect. The IOM is focused on the mobility dimensions of that. So, what happens to the people who suffer most from climate change? It's the poorest. Where are the poorest? A lot of them are in the south. And what do they do? The most ancient coping mechanism known to man—they migrate.

JL: There's a need to scale up water resources considering that 60 percent of the country's renewable water resources are generated outside of the country, which is contributing to water-induced migration. Is the IOM providing sustainable programming to respond to this issue?


GG: We approach this issue from the adaptation angle. Our focus is very bottom-up, community-based, and localized. We look at climate change adaptation and disaster-risk reduction, analyzing limited resources. What can be done in terms of new technologies and passing on the knowledge of how to adapt given the changing situation, keeping in mind that sometimes it is simply not possible?

If you've been to the marshes in southern Iraq, you will see the livelihoods are completely dependent on water, whether it's crops, agriculture, or livestock. Once those water sources run dry or the quality degrades, you're simply unable to sustain yourself and your family. People move to urban areas, towns, which creates its own set of problems like unemployment. And if you have young unemployed men with nothing to do, you see antisocial behavior.

EY: I want to build on that antisocial behavior point that you just made because Iraq seems to be this place where there are compounding issues. IOM not only works on human mobility, but also on stabilization, conflict prevention, and peacebuilding. Can you talk a little bit about what the risk of conflict is in Iraq and what you're doing about that?

GG: Iraq has been plagued by various types of conflicts. Most traditional third-party mediation and conflict resolution methods are quite violent. Anything that leads to an argument has the potential to become not only violent, but in some cases fatal. It is emblematic of how some tribes and communities have been resolving their issues. There is a proclivity towards internal mediation. It's difficult to change a custom that's been around for many years. Interaction does generally lead to better communication, better understanding, and conflict resolution. If you create projects that bring different tribes and communities together, there can be some peace dividends and outcomes that reduce violence.

It’s different in terms of unemployment, ISIL-type organizations, and violent extremism. We've seen this with some popular mobilization forces that have fought against ISIL and returned. They were the good guys and they were lionized in their communities for being active in defending Iraqis from the ISIL forces. When they came back, they had no productive output and were unable to find employment. They're still armed, they had status, and they want to retain their status–the psychological element is critical here. They can join an organization for money, and to retain a sense of purpose and self-importance. We have to provide alternative avenues. We do a lot of preventing violent extremism, social cohesion type of work, where we provide an alternative path for young men to create a productive output.

The final thing is the intersection of education and the future of the country. I've spoken to migrants asking them why they left their country, knowing it was dangerous and illegal—knowing that smugglers are human traffickers and the worst people you can come across. I would hear something like, "Oh, I don't believe in the future of my town." What they really mean is that they don’t believe organizations will take, progress, and develop their communities. Development brings people together and starts making them believe in the future of their community. We have seen progress in Baghdad, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok. You'll see cafes, people smoking shishas, music playing, and even tourists. Iraq can develop. It's just a matter of helping it move in the right direction.

JL: Could you give a specific story about one person or community where you're seeing success happen, based on your programming?

GG: I can give an example of one woman in Mosul. This woman’s children and husband were executed by ISIL. I suspect they did things to her that she hasn't even told us. For most people, even after liberation, it's the end of their meaningful life. It usually breaks people to a level that most of us can't even imagine. We did a project with her where she now is running her own small bakery, a person with no financial literacy who can barely read, where she only hires other women who have also been the direct victims of ISIL. It's become a center of its local community, and fairly profitable. I admire the resilience. To me, it is emblematic of Iraq, despite all these hardships, they keep going and help others. Just like evil can spread, good can spread. In a country like Iraq, I see a real substantiation of these very vague concepts in people and their behavior, like her.

EY: We're talking to you today in Washington, D.C. What's your message to U.S. policymakers?

GG: I've come to Washington with several messages. First, we know there's so many other crises around the world. I want to make sure we don't forget about Iraq. A lot of progress has been achieved, it's important not to abandon Iraq at the 20-year anniversary of the war. The second message, when we speak about Iraq, we talk about the problems, challenges, and failures. Let's not forget about all the progress. Not just winning the football cup, but all the programs that were successful, all the communities that were able to develop, and ISIL has been defeated. If you look at the liberated areas, despite all the issues that remain or even predate the invasion, it's a very different world today than it was in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The third message I bring is that Iraq is not just a question for discussion with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, or counterterrorism organizations. It is a country that U.S. society should engage with more. A lot of the Americans understand Iraq through film. But what are the films of Iraq about?

EY: War.

GG: War. Let's make a film about an Iraqi youth that succeeds in Germany, the United States, or even in Iraq. Let's not forget the cultural front.

Nicolas Jude Larnerd is the transition manager for the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the CSIS Project on Fragility and Mobility. Giorgi Gigauri is the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission in Iraq.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program

Giorgi Gigauri

Chief of Mission, International Organization for Migration in Iraq