A record 82.4 million people are displaced by conflict and violence around the world today, and facilitating their return to their places of origin is one of the most complex and urgent challenges facing the international community. On this United Nations International Day for Tolerance — an annual commemoration to foster mutual understanding among different peoples and cultures — we consider an oft-overlooked yet particularly formidable barrier to return: the extent to which displaced people seeking to go home after conflict are not permitted to do so by their former or potential neighbors.

This is a particular challenge in Iraq. Almost five years since the Iraqi government declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS), the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) continues to be delayed. Nearly 1.2 million IDPs have not yet gone back to their home areas, while thousands of others have been displaced again after attempting to return. Beyond the humanitarian and logistical barriers, a deeper societal problem looms large: the lack of social acceptance – or the willingness of individuals and communities to welcome and live alongside returnees.

In Ninewa Governorate, one of the most diverse regions in Iraq and among the worst-affected by mass violence and displacement, ISIS systematically targeted and persecuted ethnic and religious minorities, including Assyrians, Yazidis, Christians, and Shabak. Although they have long faced discrimination and marginalization, the abuses meted out by ISIS were especially notable for their scale and brutality, thus compounding these minorities’ experiences of oppression and stoking fear and resentment of the local Sunni Arab population. Yazidis, in particular, were subject to horrific violence en masse, which has been recognized by the United Nations as genocide.

While efforts are ongoing in Europe and the United States to bring perpetrators of these atrocities to justice, much more attention and action are needed locally to resolve the continued challenge of displacement in Iraq. The legacy of ISIS has stymied the return of IDPs in ethnically and religiously mixed areas, both by discouraging members of minority groups from returning and by causing them to resist the return of displaced Sunnis. New research by our organization, Mercy Corps, based on years of experience in humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding programs in Iraq, suggests that durable solutions to displacement will remain elusive unless they include restorative justice and peacebuilding mechanisms to promote social acceptance and coexistence.

Based on a survey of more than 500 Yazidi households in the Sinjar District of Ninewa, we identified several factors that shaped their willingness to accept returnees. First, returnees’ movement patterns during ISIS rule play a much greater role than their ethnic or religious identity. We found that respondents (both men and women) were more likely to accept returnees who fled ISIS, regardless of their identity, than those who stayed and lived under the group and fled later — echoing reports of a tendency in Iraq to assume that those who did not flee ISIS are supporters or collaborators. Second, reminding Yazidis through inclusive narratives that both they and Sunni Arabs suffered under ISIS helps to foster a sense of shared experiences, which in turn makes them, especially men, more likely to accept Sunni returnees. Conversely, Yazidi women were much less likely to accept Sunni returnees, highlighting important gender differences that may reflect the particular fear and trauma that Yazidi women and girls have endured, including being subjected to ISIS’s widespread use of sexual violence. Third, we found that Yazidis who were displaced with Sunnis and had frequent interactions with them were more likely to accept Sunni returnees, regardless of respondents’ gender.

These findings suggest that even among a heavily persecuted population in Iraq’s polarized sectarian environment, it is possible to improve the prospects of social reintegration. This has important implications for efforts to facilitate durable solutions to displacement, support survivors of violence — including sexual violence — and contribute to stability and justice in Iraq. Ending the country’s displacement crisis is not only a humanitarian imperative; it is essential for ensuring peace, stability, and economic prosperity moving forward.

To that end, donors, policymakers, and practitioners should take several actions.

First, it is crucial to correct the misperception that those who did not flee ISIS’ rule were necessarily collaborators or sympathizers of the militant group. People may have stayed because of their deep attachment to their homes and lands, because they lacked the resources to move, or because they were prohibited by ISIS from leaving. Erasing this stigma will require the concerted efforts of – and cooperation between – local government, civil society, and international humanitarian and peacebuilding organizations with the support of bilateral and multilateral donors. Mercy Corps’ experience in other contexts, such as Nigeria, suggests that religious leaders and community elders can be highly influential in countering misinformation and changing people’s attitudes towards coexistence with former perpetrators of violence and other groups in conflict-affected environments.

Second, promoting inclusive perceptions of shared experiences across different religious and ethnic groups that suffered under and survived ISIS’ brutal occupation can help advance sustainable returns. This can be done by facilitating safe spaces and meaningful opportunities  for intercommunal dialogue that enable the recognition of each other’s experiences of surviving atrocities by ISIS and encourage communities to envision a shared future of co-existence based on tolerance and mutual respect.

Third, to support long-term recovery, Iraqi officials and community leaders should work together to establish locally relevant restorative justice mechanisms. For example, in Ninewa, this could take the form of efforts to ensure accountability alongside community-level truth-telling circles or public memorialization and commemoration initiatives. The approaches should be community driven and rooted in local customs in order to repair relations and mitigate the risk of new or recurring harm.

Finally, donors should expand investments in trauma-informed and gender-sensitive peacebuilding, including multi-year programming, to support individual and community-level psychosocial needs of survivors. Psychosocial support and trauma-healing can help foster social cohesion and build trust within and between communities. Such services have the potential to create a foundation for intergroup reconciliation between Yazidis and Sunni Arabs in Iraq, but they are only likely to be effective if designed in a gender-sensitive manner that takes into account the differential needs and aspirations of both men and women, especially survivors and witnesses of conflict-related sexual violence and other abuses.

At the same time, the voices, lived experiences, and leadership of women and girls must be integrated into the design and implementation of programs to counteract social alienation and promote peaceful co-existence. This is consistent with the objectives of the 2017 Women, Peace and Security Act, which Congress adopted with bipartisan support, as well as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. In Iraq, it is also critical not only for resolving displacement, but indeed for ensuring peace and preventing future conflict. 

IMAGE: An Iraqi woman accused of being close to the Islamic State group, an allegation she insists has been intentionally designed to obscure a land dispute, walks at the Hasansham camp for internally displaced people in northern Iraq on December 10, 2020. Rights groups and others — including the International Organisation for Migration — are worried about displaced families who stand accused of links to IS, sometimes falsely, and may face violent retribution if sent home. (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images)