IOM discusses challenges of climate-induced migration in Iraq

We want migration out of aspiration and not out of desperation.
Chief of IOM Iraq mission, George Gigauri, speaks to Kurdistan 24 during a virtual interview, August 24, 2022. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
Chief of IOM Iraq mission, George Gigauri, speaks to Kurdistan 24 during a virtual interview, August 24, 2022. (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – On August 24, Kurdistan 24 conducted a virtual interview with the head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Iraq. The challenges of climate-inducted migration and the humanitarian organization's efforts along with the local governments to tackle the threats were discussed. 

The following is the Q&A transcript of the interview, which has been edited for style, grammar, and clarity.

Kurdistan 24: What is the status of migration currently in Iraq? Could you tell us about the figures and factors behind migration in the country?

George Gigauri: Thank you very much. And thank you very much for inviting me. I am more than happy to speak to you on these very important matters.

First and foremost, I would like to separate three types of migration that we are working with [or] that we are viewing. So, the first one is internal forced migration or displacement. So, we estimate about 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq today. But of course, that is, in comparison to a much higher number. Many of those have gone back after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) conflict was over. We did a lot of research and the main barriers to the remaining 1.7 million IDPs not going back are three folds. The first one is basic housing [or] sheltering, and access to basic services. Second, it is insecurity, of course. And the third one is access to livelihoods.

The second type of migration causes international migration. And while there is no official figure on the number of Iraqis abroad, we are working on migration management on an international scale as well. Most recently, we did a study of the returnees from the Belarus border – a series of incidents that I'm sure all of you followed very closely. And the main reasons that were given to us by the respondents for taking risks and for migrating, trying to get to the European Union and the UK this time through Belarus, that are often other routes are adopted as well, was employment. And some of those were seeking asylum.

This area of migration which is becoming ever more relevant and not just for us but for the global stage is climate-induced migration, meaning migration that is forced by climate change. It is particularly acutely felt in the south, but certainly relevant to most of Iraq. And there, we're working with local communities to try to find solutions. There are no exact figures on that. But we know that there are at least 40,000 [people] that have been located in just three provinces through our survey. Their concerns raised to us included deteriorating livelihoods due to severe climatic changes in that area.

Kurdistan 24: What are some of the immediate implications of climate-inducted migration on the urban centers, particularly in the southern region?

George Gigauri: This problem is not unique to Iraq in any way. This is a global problem. And it is felt across the globe. However, it is very relevant to Iraq. It is particularly relevant to the south of Iraq, which is very hot, dry, and particularly vulnerable to climatic changes.

So, what are we seeing in the south; water, water, and again water has been a problem. It is not a new problem. It is been a problem in the south and exacerbated by higher temperatures and lower rainfall. And of course, all of the effects that have on agriculture and people's livelihoods. As a result, people are forced to move. All types of environmental degradation have very concrete effects on human beings and households. And as we know, migration is the oldest coping mechanism of humanity. This is how people cope with problems; they always will try to move to find a better life for themselves, their families, and their children. And of course, the south of Iraq is no exception.

And where do they go? [They] mainly [go] from rural areas to urban areas because of food security, and looking for livelihoods and opportunities.

Kurdistan 24: Do you expect a mass exodus of the indigenous inhabitants of the southern marshes in the coming years due to the rising climate threats?

George Gigauri: I probably would not use the term “mass exodus”. But we know for a fact that climate-induced migration is a reality in Iraq. And [it is] not just in the south, but it is particularly felt in the south. What we're observing based on our research is moving from rural to urban areas. People tend to move to areas with the most opportunities. And what places have the most opportunities? it is usually the large urban centers that have access to jobs, education, and possibilities for improved income-generating activities.

If you take Basra as one example; just because people move there, it does not automatically guarantee success. We are seeing a lot of issues with the households that move. The people that we have spoken to [in] surveys and research, for example, named various problems that they are encountering. One of them is natural employment. The second one is income that is related to that [employment]. And some of them mentioned access to financial security and social security nets as well, especially for the older [and] more vulnerable households.

All of these issues are playing out in front of our eyes and we cannot ignore them. We have to deal with it: not just from the point of view of urbanization, but from the point of view of development, education, and employment.

Kurdistan 24: How have climate change threats affected migration in the northern regions of Iraq -- Kirkuk, Nineveh, Kurdistan Region?

George Gigauri: There is less data available for Kurdistan. But we do have some data on Nineveh, including some IOM research that we have done. And we can unequivocally say that the climatic changes are affecting the livelihoods of the people there [Nineveh]. There is some displacement due to – sometimes not exclusively – but certainly where climate change is a factor [or it is] one of the elements that contribute to migration. There are a lot of households that are dependent on agriculture and livestock. And national water scarcity has a direct effect on those whether it's a small business or whether it's a household business or just an area of work that they can no longer sustainable because they're because of the natural consequences of dried and high temperatures.

Kurdistan 24: Water scarcity is cited as one of the immediate challenges of climate change. Part of the issue is dam constructions by Iraq's neighboring countries -- Iran and Turkey -- that have drastically reduced the water inflow much needed for the country's crippling agriculture. How can IOM support Iraq internationally, so it can secure its fair water quota?

George Gigauri: It is certainly a very relevant question for Iraq. However, IOM’s focus is a little bit different. We work through a community-based approach. Our approach is bottom-up. We look at adaptation measures and what can be done at the village level and an urban settlement level. In other words, what can the communities do [by] themselves in terms of disaster risk reduction; in terms of preparedness, and adaptation to these climatic changes. And what projects and initiatives can be taken at a local grassroots level to make sure that people can continue running that agricultural livelihood and their local businesses to survive.

Kurdistan 24: Is IOM mainly dealing with consequences rather than its causes?

George Gigauri: What I mean to say is that the lead on those types of negotiations would be a different agency. IOM works at the community level. Of course, we work at the central level [and] with the government too, but given our mandate, our agencies have different mandates. We are focused on the community level [and] adaptation type of projects. So yes, it is predominantly dealing with consequences. Although, in some cases, we are able to address the root causes as well.

Kurdistan 24: As Iraq depends more on fossil fuels and hydrocarbon sales to relieve its economic woes, do you think the government would be able to step up the efforts in order to mitigate the climate risks?

George Gigauri: There are two very important normative and policy documents within the framework of which we support the governments. And they are government documents. One of them is the [Iraqi] Green Paper Initiative. And the second one is the National Adaptation Plan, which outlines the roadmap on how to address at least some of these climate issues that are affecting the country.

I also think it is important to look around the region and the world [to] see what best practices have been developed. And what can be replicated; what know-how can be taken from other countries [in order to be] applied in Iraq.

In November this year, there will be a very important event called COP27 in Egypt. Of course, Iraq will be represented there. And I hope a lot can be taken from that meeting. And a lot of the lessons that are learned perhaps can be taken back to Iraq and see what can be done to not only improve the situation but as you said, what can be done to address the root causes.

Kurdistan 24: What has the IOM Iraq done to help those directly affected by the climate crisis?

George Gigauri: In IOM world – which is the UN migration agency – we deal with climate change from the perspective and from the lens of migration management. How we approach it is through Multi-Purpose Community Centre (MPCC) policy, which is the migration, environment, and climate change as well as the nexus between these three features. How does it unfold? And what is our ultimate aim with this? We want migration to be a choice. And we do not want to stop migration. But we want migration to be orderly, safe, and regular. We want migration out of aspiration and not out of desperation.

How do we do it? As IOM, we want to address the root causes of climate-induced forced displacement on the one hand, and on the other hand, we want to mitigate and reduce the negative impacts and the damage done by these extreme climate events on Iraqi households.

We do it by working with the government, of course at the government level and at the community level. We look at what can be done in terms of Disaster Risk Reduction Initiatives (DRRIs). At the grassroots level, we look at what can be done in terms of preparedness and mitigation. And of course, what new technologies can be adopted to improve the situation? But ultimately, we want to make sure that if people do move, it is done in a sustainable way and in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Kurdistan 24: How can IOM support both the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Governments to tackle migration?

George Gigauri: Naturally, we work with the government at all levels. We work with the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, Interior, and Migration. And all the [other] main stakeholders. We have been in Iraq for over 20 years. We have assisted millions of IDPs and Iraqi migrants. We have worked and continue[ed] to work in most of the areas of Iraq, including the most remote areas. And we will continue to do so because this is our mandate. The situation remains complex. But for IOM, this is one of the largest missions globally. And we have activities that help Iraqi migrants and IDPs, including housing, shelter, basic services, mental health, and psychosocial support. We work on migration management, resettlement protection, and every other area related to migration. We are here to help.

Kurdistan 24: What is your take on the returns of IDPs and those who are still remaining in the camps, particularly in the Kurdistan Region?

George Gigauri: First of all, I want to recognize the generosity of the local government and communities that have continued to help these people for a number of years now. And this cannot be emphasized enough. I also praise the resilience of those people for continuing to be in those difficult conditions.

Secondly, let’s remember that most of the displaced [people] in the past seven years have already gone back. The case of the displaced is consistently decreasing as people are able to go back.

And now there are those that are still displaced. We are looking at various solutions together with other UN partners and the government on what can be done for them. Nationally, this is and has always been a government-led process. UN and IOM support that process. And we do a number of things to help with these returns, including assistance in the communities of origin, housing, health, shelter, and even some livelihood opportunities. Wherever we can, we are investing in local communities to make the return as easy as possible. But it is true that it is going to take time because for some it is easier to return than others.

Kurdistan 24: Is there anything else you want to mention before the end of this interview?

George Gigauri: I want to thank those communities [again] for their generosity in hosting the IDPs. On the other hand, I want to ask for continued support, not just from local populations, but rather from the international community and our donor partners as well.

Kurdistan 24: Thank you very much for this opportunity!

George Gigauri: Thank you.