Recent camp closures have stripped thousands of displaced people of essential services during the Covid-19 pandemic, with inadequate government plans for their return home, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Iraqi government’s plan to end the prolonged displacement of families who were uprooted by fighting between the Islamic State (ISIS) and anti-ISIS forces will only succeed if the government ensures that families recently evicted from camps for displaced people can safely return to their previous homes or go to new shelters, with full access to electricity, water, and healthcare services.
“After these families’ years in limbo, it is positive that the government is trying to find durable solutions for families displaced by fighting,” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But this strategy will only succeed if it builds on lessons learned from previous camp closures and forced returns in which aid was cut off and people were left completely on their own.”
In March 2021, the Iraqi government endorsed a National Plan to Address Displacement in Iraq drafted by the Ministries of Planning and of Migration and Displacement. But the government has closed 16 camps over the last seven months, leaving at least 34,801 displaced people without assurances that they can return home safely, get other safe shelter, or have access to affordable services. Only two camps remain open in Baghdad-controlled territory, one in Nineveh and another in Anbar, and they are also set to close.
The Migration and Displacement Ministry announced the closures in mid-October 2020 and closed 16 camps by January 2021. Many residents were female-headed households displaced by fighting between ISIS and the Iraqi military from 2014 to 2017, and many of these families are being labeled as ISIS-affiliated. The Kurdistan Regional Government has not shut down camps in areas under its control.
These closures proceeded despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, during which the government put in place numerous lockdowns and other movement restrictions. In 2020, Covid-19 killed over 12,526 people in Iraq and the pandemic continued to plague the country in 2021, with the latest death toll reaching 16,267.
Despite the government’s stated aim to have displaced people return home, administrative hurdles prevent families with perceived ISIS-affiliation from getting documents, including identity cards, birth certificates, and ration cards. This blocks both their safe return and access to welfare benefits and government services.
The authorities and communities are labeling people as ISIS-affiliated based on suspicions that a relative joined ISIS or was sympathetic to the group. They are often applying these labels without any evidence that the people themselves showed sympathy to or joined the group or committed a crime. There is no way for people to appeal this label.
Some local authorities are also applying Law No. 20, Compensating the Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Actions in 2009, in a discriminatory manner, excluding families with perceived-ISIS affiliations. The law is supposed to compensate anyone who has experienced property destruction, injury, and loss of life if the property was destroyed by fighting, regardless of the reason or which warring party destroyed it.
While many families have applied for but have not yet received any compensation, the authorities are preventing some families with perceived-ISIS affiliations from applying. As a result, many do not have the resources to rebuild their homes.
A report published in December 2020, based on interviews with 2,764 families by a range of international humanitarian organizations, captures their plight. The interviews were conducted from September 2019 to November 2020 in the two weeks after these families’ evictions. Almost a third of the families said that they had not wanted to leave the camp, and just over a third said that they had not returned to their areas of origin, with most saying this was because their properties were destroyed.
Of those who returned, only a third were living in their own homes, with the rest renting, hosted by others, or squatting in unfinished or abandoned buildings. Twenty percent said they feared being evicted by security forces or their local community because of their perceived ISIS-affiliation. Half of the families evicted said they did not have access to enough food to meet their basic needs, and over a third said they did not have adequate access to drinking water.
From November 2020 to May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 people from Nineveh, Salah al-Din, and Anbar governorates who had lived with their families in camps since 2016, all with perceived ISIS ties, and who were evicted. The families raised similar concerns. None had been able to move back into their old homes and eight said they were not able to return to their areas, fearing being threatened, arrested, or harmed, and had to rent homes elsewhere. They said they were concerned they would not be able to afford rent in the coming months.
“I can’t even afford my share of the rent,” said a woman with five children sharing a two-bedroom rental with three other families, a total of 15 people. “I depend on what people and charities give me to pay it. I am a widow, with no adult male in the family, so it’s difficult for me to find work. I am constantly afraid of us getting evicted.”
The families who could return to their home areas were from the Shirqat district and Yathrib subdistrict in Salah al-Din, a governorate with significantly less support from international nongovernmental organizations for displaced families. One man said that his house is occupied by another family in his village and because of his perceived links to ISIS he has been unable to get authorities to remove the family.
The other five said their homes had been completely destroyed and they couldn’t afford to rebuild them. They were living in tents, relatives’ houses, or in one case renting a home in another city. All were struggling to provide their families with adequate food, water, electricity, and health care.
Iraq: Inadequate Plans for Camp Closures https://t.co/YnojPgv4t6— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) June 3, 2021
In a positive step, in the one remaining camp in Nineveh, south of Mosul, in March 2021, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, the nongovernmental organization INTERSOS, and the Displacement and Migration Ministry created a committee to discuss the barriers that prevent the displaced families from returning to their homes and to help them find durable solutions that will allow them to leave the camp.
The Iraqi government should not close the remaining camps unless the authorities are able to ensure access to durable solutions including availability of basic Covid-19 mitigation measures such as adequate shelter and water, Human Rights Watch said.
Meanwhile, as part of the new national strategy, the authorities should engage with families living in protracted displacement in the camps and elsewhere to help them get any documentation they are still missing, understand why they have been unable to return home and where they would like to live, and ensure that regardless of where they settle they have affordable access to shelter and basic services. The government should investigate allegations of discrimination by public authorities, including the discriminatory application of the 2009 compensation law.
“If the government really wants to close the displacement file then it should start working on making sure that displaced families actually have the ability to resettle safely, whether back to their homes or elsewhere,” Wille said. “This means ensuring that they have the basics – food, water, a roof over their head.”
© 2000 - 2021 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)