Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Costs of War

Iraqi Refugees

In this 2015 photo, a refugee from Iraq is comforted by her brother. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

As of 2021, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad.

The refugee crisis has impacted both Iraqis who fled and the communities that they left behind. Engineers, artists, lawyers, academics, doctors, and other professionals were among the first to escape the war. This migration dismantled many of Iraq's cultural institutions and stripped it of the services that middle class professionals provide.  

According to the Iraqi Medical Association, approximately half of Iraq's registered doctors fled the country in the years immediately following the 2003 invasion. Where once Iraq had among the region’s best health care system and health indicators, the current patient-doctor ratio puts it significantly behind neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, crucial health indicators in Iraq have worsened since the U.S. invasion, and even before that, since the 1990s, when the U.S. imposed economic sanctions that were devastating for the Iraqi people. The infant mortality rate increased 150 percent from 1990 to 2005. The World Health Organization estimated that 70 percent of Iraqis lack access to clean water and 80 percent lack sanitation, conditions leading to cholera epidemics. The lack of clean water and sanitation are particular concerns among Iraqi internally displaced persons (IDPs), many of whom live in informal settlements.

Key Findings

  • The 2003 U.S. invasion displaced approximately 1 in 25 Iraqis from their homes, with fighting connected with the Islamic State contributing to additional displacement.

  • As of 2020, 9.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced or refugees abroad.
  • The war has brought increased rates of illness and disease to Iraq, while displacing the very medical professionals who could have treated the sick.

  • The war in Iraq and Syria are expected to exceed half a million human lives lost and $2.89 trillion by 2050.
  • Lack of access to sanitation, clean drinking water, and adequate nutrition are particular concerns among Iraqi IDPs.


  • The Congressional Research Service should submit an annual report to Congress on the refugee situation in regions where the U.S. is at war, analyzing the problem’s scale and the U.S. and international resources directed towards it.

(Page updated as of March 2023)