The current conflicts and crises in Syria and Iraq have affected the whole population in both countries.

Medya Ismail Qassim (2) was born on the Sinjar Mountain under siege by IS. Now she is an IDP in Dohuk. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.
Medya Ismail Qassim (2) was born on the Sinjar Mountain under siege by IS. Now she is an IDP in Dohuk. Photo: Håvard Bjelland.

A number of assessments and research reports have been undertaken to analyse these situations and better understand protection needs among the population. This report aims to complement the existing information base by improving understanding of the protection needs of minority groups from Syria and Iraq. Its findings will be useful for humanitarian actors to refine efforts to provide relevant life-saving assistance and support sustainable long-term solutions for all groups in society. This report also aims to support Syria, Iraq, neighbouring countries and donors in their search for better approaches to strengthen and rebuild society and generate equal opportunities for all.

The analysis and findings stem from a desk review of primary and secondary sources and primary research specifically conducted for this report. The project has been carried out by NCA in partnership with WCC, with funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The history of the Middle East in general, and of Syria and Iraq in particular, is complex. This report focuses on issues arising from the conflict in Syria that developed from public protests in early 2011, and from the conflict that followed the IS takeover of large segments of Iraqi territory in mid-2014. These conflicts have triggered humanitarian crises in both countries. These conflicts have affected the whole populations of Syria and Iraq, causing a huge loss of life, mass displacement, widespread destruction and notable attacks against civilians, including members of religious and ethnic minorities – raising concerns about future cultural and social diversity.

There are three reasons for including a longer-term perspective on protection needs in this report:

  • To bridge the much-criticised conceptual and programming gap between humanitarian and development assistance, acknowledging that different groups and geographical contexts need different approaches.
  • To recognise that the immediate violence perpetrated against minority groups has long-term impacts on their resilience and vulnerability, as well as their ongoing protection needs and future existence.
  • To acknowledge that the conflicts and current dynamics in Syria and Iraq cannot be understood without considering the human rights deficits that preceded them.


This report begins with a discussion of the concept of ‘minorities’, how it is perceived by conflict-affected groups from Syria and Iraq and how the term is used here.

Chapter 2 describes the demographic composition of Syria and Iraq and provides a brief account of key events in the recent history of both countries. It then examines sectarianism and discrimination patterns before the current conflicts broke out, then analyses the conflicts and their effects on the majority and minority populations. This includes insights into how religion – and, in some cases, also ethnicity – have been used as political tools and influence the ongoing conflicts.

Chapter 3 looks at the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict in Syria and Iraq and responses by humanitarian actors. It focuses on how diverse the needs of conflict-affected people are, and ultimately how well the humanitarian system is positioned to respond to those needs.

Chapter 4 then explores the perspectives of Syrian and Iraqi minorities and the majority group on the possibility of the return and resettlement of displaced people, and reconciliation between groups. It maps out similarities and differences between and among minority groups, and between minorities and the majority community, to better understand the opportunities and challenges for short- and long-term support strategies.

Finally, Chapter 5 summarises the key findings of this report. It discusses whether there are trends in the protection needs of minority groups and whether they need to be addressed differently from those of majority communities. The report ends by providing a set of recommendations for different actors.


The analysis in this report is based on a review of primary and secondary sources, as well as new research. A desk study of available information on the impact of conflict in Iraq and Syria on vulnerable groups was carried out between December 2015 and January 2016. This study specifically focused on minorities – and their immediate and long-term protection needs, providing a foundation for primary data collection. Two research papers were also commissioned to inform the study – one on conflict dynamics and institutional processes and another on security conditions for minority communities in northern Iraq.

NCA and local partners then conducted focus group discussions2 among refugees and IDPs from Syria and Iraq. These took place in Syria, the Kurdistan region, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Norway. They were complemented by key informant interviews with humanitarian actors. All of these primary sources have been anonymised and any sensitive information that could identify them has been changed. In total, the study has gathered the views of some 4,000 people (approximately 55% men, 45% women).

In cooperation with local partners, NCA conducted three surveys in the Kurdistan region, Syria and Lebanon between April and June 2016. NCA and partners used their relevant projects and networks to reach the main target population. They reached: 933 respondents in the Kurdistan region (Duhok governorate); 602 respondents in Lebanon (Beirut, Bekka, Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon governorates); and 2,007 respondents in Syria (Aleppo, Hama, Homs, rural Damascus, the municipality of Damascus, Daraa, Al Hasakah, Latakia, Sweida and Tartus governorates). This convenience sampling at group level was then combined with a random selection of individual respondents within households.

All questionnaires were completed by respondents from religious minority and majority groups, for comparison. Except for a portion of questionnaires administered electronically in the Kurdistan region, trained interviewers employed a paper-based questionnaire. Results were then electronically recorded by partner staff for analysis by NCA, primarily via regression models that simultaneously analysed the effect of a number of variables (gender, education level, religious affiliation, place of origin, etc.) on a particular outcome.

Data collection for this study also included a rapid assessment by a local partner in Lebanon conducted in October 2016. This canvassed views from 10 women survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) aged 21–36 and eight case workers in different locations in Lebanon, to assess how religious affiliation intersects with GBV and CRSV vulnerabilities and support services.

Logistical constraints mean it was not possible to conduct focus group discussions and surveys in the same level of detail in all areas of Syria and Iraq or their neighbouring countries. Despite this challenge, the findings of this study complement those gathered by other organisations.

Analysis of information from different sources made it possible to triangulate findings to ensure that the conclusions are as accurate as possible and reflect subtle nuances. Care has been taken to provide credible statistical information. The report has been through a rigorous validation process that involved international and regional experts, and national and international staff, working in protection and humanitarian assistance in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries. Furthermore, preliminary findings were discussed with Syrians and Iraqis from majority and minority communities, to corroborate, reject or further investigate them.

As with all pieces of research, there are the usual caveats about the constraints and limitations of the research process. Conflict and violent upheaval always limits the gathering of accurate information to understand the contemporary situation. This is because access to some areas is limited, lack of trust and fear of repercussions mean that many people are reluctant to talk freely, and because informants and their accounts of events are influenced by traumatic experiences. The surveys included a question on current income. However, it seems that there was little consistency across respondents with respect to a) whether the income was their individual or household income, b) how many individuals relied on this income, and c) whether respondents were citing all income or just earned wages. Additionally, some interviewers felt that respondents might be citing lower incomes in the hope that it would allow them to receive more aid. As a result, income data has not been used in subsequent analysis.

In general, there is limited data about minorities and their status.3 Even before the civil war in Syria and the rise of IS in Iraq, there was no accurate census data that provided a breakdown of these countries’ populations’ religious and ethnic composition. The conflicts have precipitated mass movements of people, changing the demographic ratios in Iraq and Syria. Similarly, the demographics and movement patterns of religious and ethnic minorities can be politicized, also nowadays in the context of the Syria and Iraq crises.

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Executive Summary

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Chapter 1 – The concept of minorities in Iraq and Syria