Perceptions and Trajectories of Youth in Baghdad, Al-Basra, and Mosul after the 2014 Conflict with ISIS

Ivan standing in the ruins of an old house in the historic center of Erbil in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. ©Levi Meir Clancy/Unsplash

For the full report, click here or on the right of this page.

The dataset and the enclosed metadata and codebook, the sampling frame, the surveyors’ methodological note, as well as the questionnaire of the underlying survey study can be accessed via this link

Executive Summary

This infographics report analyzes and interprets quantitative data that was collected by the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) in Summer 2021 using an extensive in-person/face-to-face survey targeting 676 youth (aged 18-28) in three Iraqi cities (Baghdad, Al-Basra, and Nineveh-Mosul). By doing so, the report aims at assessing the impact of the 2014 conflict with ISIS in Iraq on the perceptions, aspirations, and actual trajectories of youth living in these three cities, namely in terms of education, employment and livelihoods, political participation, civic engagement and peacebuilding efforts, as well as choices for personal life. The survey is part of the Arab Reform Initiative’s broader work on how youth in Iraq and other Arab countries have navigated armed conflicts in the last decade.

We find that the conflict has had a significant negative impact on Iraqi youth’s education and employment, and that this impact is more pronounced on education compared to employment. This impact happened mainly through the channel of economic hardship and – to a lesser extent – the channel of fear, uncertainty, and security concerns. This impact has also largely shaped the surveyed youth’s personal lives and choices. Moreover, surveyed youth expressed apathy towards formal politics and fear of engaging in politics or expressing political views/affiliations/support because of security concerns. The 2014 conflict has had a significantly more negative impact on Iraqi youth’s political participation than on their civic engagement.

Although our data shows that the overall impact of the conflict on these different dimensions is significant, the magnitude of this impact is substantially less than one may have expected. We found that the negative impact of the conflict is of a higher magnitude on the actual status quo of Iraqi youth compared to their aspirations and their perceptions of its actual impact. For instance, when asked general questions about the factors affecting their trajectories, Iraqi youth did not or rarely chose “the Iraqi ISIS conflict,” whereas when they were directly asked about the impact of this conflict on their trajectories, their answers exhibited a significant importance given to the conflict. In our report, we present various reasons that explain these observations and discrepancies, some of which come from our data and others from our understanding of the Iraqi context. These reasons include the following:

  • Part of the circumstances endured by Iraqi youth in the aftermath of the 2014 conflict could be attributed to the political and economic conditions preceding the conflict and perhaps resulting from previous or overlapping conflicts/crises (e.g., the 2003 conflict, the 2014 water poisoning crisis). This might have reduced the perceptions of the impact of the 2014 conflict;
  • The surveyed sample is relatively small and limited to the three cities, with Al-Basra and – to a lesser extent – Baghdad were less affected by the conflict compared to Nineveh-Mosul. This might have decreased the magnitude of the conflict’s impact in aggregate terms;
  • The survey is targeting a sample of youth with a median age of 23, whose employability is limited and inflexible over the studied period (2014-2021). This might have decreased the impact of the conflict on employment;
  • Our qualitative research shows that Iraqi youth hold on to their education goals as much as possible and regardless of the circumstances. This might have decreased the impact of the conflict on the surveyed youth’s education-related aspirations;
  • The way the survey questions are asked can also sometimes solicit the interviewees’ perceptions of the direct factors impacting youth trajectories, even though these factors could be the result of the conflict, and sometimes solicit their perceptions of the impact of the Iraqi conflict itself, more indirectly;
  • During the conflict, the media was saturated with talks about international interventions against ISIS at the highest level, and the surveyed youth have reported a relatively decent level of trust in the media in the respective question of our survey. This might have made them believe that ISIS will be a short-lived phenomenon and might have kept their optimism high despite the crisis, thus reducing the impact of the conflict on their aspirations and somehow on their perceptions.

The key takeaways of this survey report can be summed up as below:

Education, Employment, and Livelihood Trajectories

  • 29.29% of those surveyed believe that the Iraqi conflict has affected their education path “very badly” and 14.05% of them believe that the Iraqi conflict has affected their education path “badly.”
    • When asked about the factors through which the conflict has affected their education path as such, 31.12% answered “security concerns,” 21.45% answered “impoverishment,” and 18.13% answered “fear of the future.”
  • 21.3% of surveyees believe that the conflict has affected their career path, 77% of whom are males.
    • When asked about the way the conflict has affected their career path, 35.66% of them answered “negative impact: lost money/opportunities,” 18.88% answered “I changed my career path,” 18.18% of them answered “I lost my preferred career,” and 12.59% answered “I left my studies during the conflict, or delay in getting a good job.”
  • 72% of those surveyed worked for the first time in their life to earn money to help their families or to cover their own expenses.
  • 15% of the surveyees who were working before or at the beginning of the conflict have lost their job since then and are no longer working. 67% of the surveyees who were not working before or at the beginning of the conflict were still jobless at the time of the survey.
  • The employment conditions of the working respondents have not significantly changed in the aftermath of the conflict with ISIS as compared to before or at the beginning of the conflict, namely with regard to their employment status, their job stability, the sector and the type of their economic activity.
  • None of the working respondents has found their job with the help of an NGO that was responding to the conflict. Only 3.5% of them found their job through the government employment office after the conflict. Most of them found it by themselves or with the help of family members and friends.
  • The distribution of Iraqi youth across the different monthly net earnings’ groups depicts similar trends before or at the beginning of the conflict, after the conflict, and at the time of the survey. However, Iraqi youth’s overall net earnings per month have decreased, reaching an all-time low in the period right after the conflict, especially for those whose net earnings per month are on the lower bound, meaning those who earn less than one million Iraqi Dinars (the equivalent to USD 700).
  • Only 7.25% of respondents believe that the conflict has ever been an opportunity to earn income or get income support, 50% of whom mentioned “by having more job opportunities to consider/take due to the enlargement of the NGO enterprise” and 2.08% of whom mentioned “by joining armed groups/participating in the conflict.”

Personal Life

  • The conflict appears to aggravate the way social norms and traditions create gender-based inequalities and reinforce stereotypes regarding the role of men versus that of women as well as the differentiation of acceptable spheres of participation (public versus private sphere) between both genders.
    • 94.53% of respondents believe that women should pursue education in general, whereas 62.87% of respondents believe that women should still pursue education amid conflict.
    • 88.61% of respondents believe that women should work/pursue a career in general (81% of whom are males), whereas 53.99% of respondents believe that women should still work/pursue a career amid conflict (60% of whom are males).
  • The Iraqi conflict has had a quite substantial impact on Iraqi youth’s marital statuses, with around 25% of youth having experienced a change in their marital statuses because of the conflict – mostly in the form of a delayed or un-occurred marriage.
  • Iraqi youth’s aspirations in the current post-conflict era are mostly education and career-related.

Political Participation, Civic Engagement, and Peacebuilding

  • The political views and affiliations of 15.68% of the surveyed youth have changed in the aftermath of the Iraqi conflict.
  • 38.16% of those surveyed confirmed that the conflict made them abstain from engaging in any form of political participation or simply become less engaged in political and civic action. The conflict’s negative impact on civic engagement is slightly lower than on political participation. However, 77.81% of the surveyed youth believe that collective action is important/very important.
  • The greatest majority of respondents believe that the conflict has made their ethnic/sectarian group worse off. This was at 78.34% in Arab youth, 88.89% in Kurdish youth, and 100% in Turkman youth who believe so. This proportion, therefore, increases as the ethnic group is smaller or more vulnerable. Overall, 77.66% of the surveyed youth believe that the conflict has made all ethno-sectarian groups worse off and not only theirs.
  • While 65.24% of the youth do not think that the Iraqi conflict has affected their mental health (or were shy to report otherwise), the rest have mostly reported a negative effect of the conflict on their mental state, especially by confirming that the conflict has made them depressed, more pessimistic, and less productive (29% of those surveyed).
  • 59.32% of the respondents are in favour of secularism in Iraq and very few support sectarianism. 22.49% of the respondents have said that they are neither with secularism nor with sectarianism. 9.21% of these specifically stated that they would like to see a “unified Iraq.”
  • The surveyees’ mostly defined citizenship as “identifying as an Iraqi only” and “having a sense of ownership/belonging to Iraq and doing something for the benefit of the country/society.” Their most common definitions of social justice are “equality among all Iraqi citizens and Iraqi residents” and “no poverty.” The most common definitions of justice are “punishing perpetrators of crimes and those who have used violence against citizens” and “a strong rule of law, following a legal framework that is based on equity and fairness.” The most common definitions of peace are “disarmament of militias and no violence” and “implementing justice and fairness.” As for the definition of violence, surveyed youth think of it as “armed conflict” and “oppression and little freedom of expression.” Finally, concerning freedom, they defined it as “the ability to make their own choices and live how they want to live” and “the ability to practice their religion and live their identity without fear of violence.”
  • 81.95% of those surveyed do not support/encourage militarized/armed groups as a form of collective action. Only 6.8% of those surveyed have actually opted for or joined the optional military service, the Popular Mobilization Forces (Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi), the army, the police, or the security forces.
  • Although on the level of livelihoods, civil society organizations did not appear to have performed well in responding to the conflict in the eyes of the surveyed youth, 65.98% of those surveyed consider these CSOs very useful/helpful or useful/helpful on the level of political participation, civic engagement, and peacebuilding.
  • 33.58% of surveyees do not believe in the honesty of the elections in Iraq and 42.9% of them do not believe in the ability of the elections to make a positive change. This shows a lack of trust in the whole ruling system.
  • Only 2.66% of the surveyed youth want to emigrate.
  • 33.58% of surveyees expect from NGOs, donors, and other non-State actors to provide jobs/tackle unemployment and 23.67% of surveyees expect from them to conduct awareness programs for youth.
  • The aspirations of those surveyed for the future of Iraq mainly include “economic prosperity and poverty eradication” (28.85%) and “overthrown ruling class and replacement with another better and more consensual one” (25.3%). However, 47.04% of surveyees do not think that positive radical/structural change is possible in Iraq in the near future.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.