A series of wars

With a population of around 38 million, Iraq shares borders with, among others, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Ninety-nine per cent of Iraqis are Muslim, with Shia the majority denomination. Iraq is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its Protocol.

Iraq has been involved in conflict on and off since the 1980s, beginning with the Iran-Iraq war, followed by the Gulf War which involved western forces. By 2002, 400,000 Iraqis were seeking asylum in countries as disparate as Australia, Finland and Argentina, with the majority fleeing to Iran. At this time, Iraqis were the largest group of asylum seekers worldwide.

In 2003, the US and British armies invaded Iraq, believing it held weapons of mass destruction and posed a 'grave and gathering danger' to other nations.

Following Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s removal in 2003, more than 300,000 refugees were able to return to Iraq, mostly those living in Iran. However, this relative stability within Iraq was short-lived: in 2006, growing tensions culminated in Sunni forces destroying the Shiite al-Askari mosque in Samarra, sparking a civil war.

For much of this time, neighbouring Syria welcomed Iraqi refugees fleeing the conflict. However, the 2011 outbreak of civil war in Syria (which continues today) further destabilised the region. In 2014, militants from extremist group ISIS took control of Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq’s north. This civil war being fought between ISIS and a coalition of government and Kurdish forces has displaced more than 3.1 million people internally Iraq. In eight months up to May 2017, a further 300,000 Iraqis were internally displaced from the Mosul area due to the military operation to regain the city from ISIS control.

Iraqis who had fled to Syria as a result of previous conflicts have nevertheless been returning to the relative safety of Iraq, putting further strain on local resources for assisting internally displaced people. Syrian asylum seekers are restricted from entering Iraq except in 'urgent humanitarian cases'.

Asylum seekers continue to flee Iraq today, fearing racial, religious, gender and political persecution. Human Rights Watch reports of ISIS forces sexually assaulting and enslaving Iraqi women and executing journalists.

Iraqi asylum seekers to Australia

Iraqi nationals have been settling in Australia since the 1970s. The population of Iraq-born, recorded by the Australian Census of Population and Housing, was 2273 in 1976. By 1986, the Iraq-born population had risen to 4516. By the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the number had grown to 5186.

Many people from Iraq have come to Australia under the Humanitarian Programme. In the early 1990s, increased places in the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Programs were allocated to refugees from the Middle East. During 1991 and 1992, Australia accepted around 2000 Iraqi refugees.

In 2014-2015, 3258 Iraqis were granted permanent residence in Australia, 83 per cent of those on humanitarian grounds. In the same year, Iraqi asylum seekers accounted for the highest number of humanitarian visa applications of any nationality, accounting for 25 per cent. The Australian Border Force reported at 30 June 2017 that there are 46 Iraqis in onshore immigration detention facilities, and 27 in community detention.

In 2015-2016, the Australian government announced it would take an additional 12,000 asylum seekers on humanitarian visas in response to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

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Last updated August 2017.