Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp Iraqi Yazidi refugees in Newroz camp Photo credit: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee
Identity crisis? Documentation for the displaced in Iraq
by Julia St. Thomas King and Dennis Ardis October 2015

In any crisis where people are forced to flee, whether across international borders or within their own territory, holding basic documentation to prove one’s identity is fundamental to survival and recovery. In Iraq, where internally displaced people (IDPs) are scattered across different governorates with varying degrees of security and access constraints, ensuring that the most vulnerable are identified and can obtain the legal protection they need is a tremendous challenge. In the midst of ongoing conflict and an ever-evolving displacement crisis, mobile identification, legal assistance and building the capacity of local communities to share information has proven critical to ensuring that people can meet their basic needs and protect themselves and each other from further harm.


Iraq is no stranger to displacement. Prior to the most recent wave of violence, the country had already undergone significant upheaval in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion and the bombing of the Al Askari mosque in Samarra in 2006, including the dissolution of the old regime, reconstitution of the political system, destruction of infrastructure, loss of life, eruption of sectarian violence and mass displacement.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), between 2006 and 2008 an estimated 2.8 million Iraqis were displaced, 5% of the total population at the time. In 2013 approximately 2.1m people were still in displacement.+Norwegian Refugee Council/Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (NRC/ IDMC), Iraq: Internal Displacement in Brief – As of December 2013, 31 December 2013.

With the capture by Islamic State (IS) of large areas of al-Anbar governorate, as well as sites in Ninewa, Salah al-Din and Diyala, Iraq’s displacement crisis has deepened. Between January 2014 and August 2015 the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) recorded 3.1m IDPs across the country,+See sheltering in roughly 3,550 locations.+IOM Iraq, ‘Situation Report 20: Update for 10–24 June’. IS’s advances and the Iraqi government’s counter-measures have greatly diminished humanitarian access and protection space. Many are suffering from the impact of both protracted and multiple displacement – financial resources dwindling, jobs and assets lost, documentation missing – and are struggling to meet their basic needs, all while trying to protect themselves from ongoing violence.

Loss of documentation in displacement

The rapid onset and dynamic nature of the most recent crisis in Iraq caused many to flee without their most valuable belongings – including their proof of identity. In the current protection environment, documentation is essential in order to obtain even the most basic humanitarian assistance and to reach areas of safety. In Iraq, a nationality certificate, Civil ID card, housing card and food ration card (PDS) are required to access essential services and public goods – including medical care, education, food rations, employment and government social welfare schemes – as well as to register for compensation entitlements.

IDPs must register with the Ministry of Migration and Displacement (MoMD) to receive a one-off government assistance package of 1m Iraqi Dinar, as well as any other help that may be provided over the course of the crisis. Officially, this registration requires a nationality certificate, Civil ID, PDS and housing card. In many areas, NGOs are required to use MoMD beneficiary lists, which means that IDPs unable to produce these documents to register with the MoMD are often excluded from other humanitarian aid provided locally.

At the same time, IDPs are largely unable to claim the PDS food rations in their area of displacement, either because they have lost their card or because they are unable to transfer it to their new location and the governorate refuses to honour their old PDS card (e.g. in Kirkuk). For a woman without a male companion, obtaining food assistance is particularly difficult, as the PDS card bears the name of the male head of household; she can essentially be blocked from transferring the card as well as from obtaining any other documentation (and, by extension, services and assistance).

Lack of documentation also limits freedom of movement and heightens the risk of detention. Male IDPs are more likely to be detained by the police or prevented from moving from one location to another (and thus from reaching places of safety). The heightened risk of detention at checkpoints over lack of docu-mentation is exacerbated by sectarian tensions, as the situation can be exploited to deny access to safe territory for specific groups or to make arrests under Article 4 of Iraq’s Anti-Terrorism Law. To date, a quarter of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)’s detention caseload comprises Article 4 cases targeting men, the majority of them Sunni. The detention caseload from January to August 2015 has risen by 187% from the same period in 2014. This does not just pose a risk to men: it also contributes to family separation and increases the vulnerability of women and children since Iraq’s patriarchal documentation system means that men hold documentation on behalf of their family.

Barriers to accessing documentation

Obtaining personal status documentation in Iraq is difficult at the best of times. The system remains largely paper-based and location-specific. This means that, in order to obtain a new nationality certificate or Civil ID, people are expected to present themselves at the office in their governorate of origin. They are also subjected to complicated procedures, fees, administrative backlogs and a high burden of proof.

In the current climate, these barriers are further complicated by constantly changing rules, which are often created to discourage movement and force return. Inadequate staff capacity to deal with the volume of applications causes significant delays; instructions change frequently, as do the locations for issuance of documentation. In some cases power of attorney is not accepted, forcing IDPs to appear in person, despite significant risks to their safety and security. Single women face additional serious protection risks associated with movement – e.g. sexual violence, abduction – and often bear the sole burden of care for children.

Women are often required to produce their father’s or brother’s Civil ID or a nationality certificate to support their own cases. If a woman’s husband has been detained under Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Law, she will not be provided with a housing card in her name, and so cannot register with the MoMD and cannot apply for any documentation, let alone obtain housing with a legal rental agreement.

Security concerns, checkpoints and other practical constraints place near-insurmountable restrictions on IDPs’ ability to access the documentation they require to meet their basic needs and stay safe. These constraints, coupled with fear of discrimination and arbitrary arrest, also make it extremely difficult for aid agencies to provide the most vulnerable with legal assistance and information.

Mobile protection monitoring, information and legal assistance

Since 2009, the IRC has partnered with UNHCR to operate Protection, Assistance and Reintegration Centres (PARCs) across central and southern Iraq.+As of December 2014, the IRC directly operated and supported local partners in operating PARCs in ten governorates: Anbar, Babylon, Baghdad, Diyala, Karbala, Kirkuk, Najaf, Ninewa, Salah al-Din and Wassit. Rapid and constant mobile deployment to monitor the protection environment, identify needs and deliver legal and other services has proved critical to assisting the most vulnerable. Monitors conduct weekly community- and household-level assessments across urban areas – informal settlements, unfinished buildings/collective shelters and makeshift camps – as well as in formal camps to identify urgent needs.

It was through mobile protection monitoring teams that the case of Layla was identified and addressed. Layla, a 35-year-old-woman, fled Mosul with her three children in July 2014, after IS kidnapped her husband. She managed to find safe passage to a camp in Kerbala despite having left all of their documents behind, including the family’s PDS card. Layla was identified by mobile protection monitoring teams soon after she arrived at the camp. She explained: ‘I was rejected at the food ration centre and not provided with a new [PDS] card because my card was in the name of my husband and I didn’t have any documents to prove that my husband was kidnapped. Now I can’t get registration at MoMD or receive any food or money [cash assistance]’. Because the old card was in her husband’s name, Layla needed to provide not only her basic identity documents, which she didn’t have, but also additional documents showing that her husband had been kidnapped or was deceased and could therefore not update the card himself.

The monitoring team referred Layla’s case to a lawyer in Kerbala, who pressed her case directly at the food ration centre. According to Layla, the lawyer ‘explained the story of the kidnapping of my husband and my flight with my three children to Karbala. The employee approved me for a new PDS card, whereas before he had refused to listen to me’. Layla still does not know what happened to her husband, but her life is marginally better due to the PDS card. ‘I am now able to receive aid … the card is not just a document but a means of income and survival.’ Layla’s card was granted after she signed a written pledge to testify that she had no access to any other PDS card. While she should have been provided with this opportunity without legal assistance, the complexity of the system and her lack of knowledge of the ‘rules’ made it impossible for her to get her card without help.

There are thousands of cases similar to Layla’s. This year, the IRC has conducted over 1,200 community-level assessments, reaching over 84,000 households, and provided legal assistance in over 7,950 cases. Half have been to obtain documentation. And this barely scratches the surface. To reach people like Layla even faster, and because experience tells us that the majority of those uprooted will be missing basic documents, lawyers now form part of mobile teams tracking new waves of displacement. By accompanying protection monitors, lawyers engage individuals like Layla within a broader, overall discussion of their humanitarian needs, so that they can provide key information necessary to ensure their protection. Teams comprise both female and male monitors and lawyers to ensure that women have a full opportunity to raise their concerns and receive tailored assistance.

Community-led information dissemination

As humanitarian space decreases and the ability of inter-national and local actors to provide assistance directly to those in need is challenged, providing people with accurate information on how to protect themselves and their families is becoming increasingly important. In order to build this self-reliance, the IRC is training community focal points (both male and female) and working with community coordination structures to create a critical mass of people who understand the rules and can track their local evolution and application, and share this information with their communities.

In areas affiliated to Abu Ghraib district,+Specifically Hawsa, where there are an estimated 4,000 IDPs, and in Zaidan, where there are an estimated 2,000 IDPs. for example, where mobile teams were not able to access IDP populations, teams worked with community focal points, Sheikhs and IDP focal points to organise a meeting with Abu Ghraib District Council. There, IRC lawyers and protection monitors provided interactive training on registration procedures. Following this, community representatives established information dissemination points and provided information verbally in their localities. A system for reporting procedural changes and referring complex cases to lawyers was also established to ensure that community focal points could provide consistent information, and that – as rules evolved – urgent cases could receive immediate assistance.


In every displacement emergency, the possession of basic documentation to prove one’s identity is key to accessing protection and the tools necessary to rebuild one’s life. For those who have fled without such documentation, the ability to secure assistance can be very limited. Moreover, the complex nature of displacement in Iraq, with its urban and camp dimensions, and the conflict and insecurity that prevail in the country, make it very difficult for aid agencies to reach those in need, and for those in need to reach places where they can receive assistance.

In a protracted crisis such as Iraq, direct assistance by itself is not sufficient; it is vital that self-reliance among individuals and communities is also built up. Given the severe access constraints, mobile approaches to monitoring, identifying needs and providing individuals with assistance to overcome the difficulties associated with lack of documentation offer a solid platform for bolstering resilience, as does the estab-lishment of strong systems of information-sharing. The IRC has drawn on its experience of operating and supporting PARCs across southern and central Iraq in designing programmes elsewhere in the Middle East, and has adapted this approach to respond to the many needs generated by urban displacement in the region. Continuing to learn from and refine such approaches will be key as we work to support vulnerable populations displaced by conflict.

Julia St. Thomas King is Technical Advisor – Protection/Rule of Law at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Dennis Ardis is IRC Protection and Advocacy Manager for Iraq.