(Beirut) – Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities in Kirkuk are forcing internally displaced Sunni Turkmen to leave the city, Human Rights Watch said today.
Affected residents said that the regional government’s Asayish security forces confiscated their identity and benefits cards and otherwise harassed them. They said the intention was to compel them to return to towns under the control of abusive Shia units of the Iraqi government’s Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Sha’abi or PMF). The Sunni Turkmen said they thought the abuses were linked to the perception among KRG authorities that the Turkmen come from areas where some Sunni residents supported the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
“All Iraqis have the right to live in safety, and forcing displaced Turkmen families out of their homes to parts of the country where they would be in danger is particularly egregious,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “KRG forces should cease harassing Turkmen and unlawfully forcing them to leave Kirkuk.”
In a written response to a Human Rights Watch inquiry, a KRG spokesperson denied that displaced people were being given a deadline to leave Kirkuk, a major city in Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories” between the Iraqi government and the KRG, and that any religious or ethnic groups, including Turkmen, were being discriminated against. He said, however, that based on a decision by local authorities, displaced people “whose areas have been liberated months or a year ago are assisted to return to their original areas of residence.”
Following an ISIS attack on Kirkuk on October 21, 2016, KRG authorities forced hundreds of displaced Sunni Arab families to leave the city. Human Rights Watch has not identified any cases of displaced Kurdish or Shia residents being forced to leave Kirkuk.
In February 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 14 Turkmen, including three women, who had been living in Kirkuk since 2014 because of insecurity elsewhere in Iraq. All had registered with local authorities as required. In some cases, Asayish officers had confiscated their essential documents then and told them to leave the city, but had not followed up until recently. In other cases, the Asayish had confiscated the documents in recent months and ordered them to leave Kirkuk. All were in hiding in Kirkuk and most had eluded attempts to force them to leave. Two of the Turkmen said Asayish tried to force them out in late 2016, two in January 2017, and eight in February. They said that they were afraid to return to their homes because PMF units that were controlling their towns would target them because they were Sunni.
People interviewed said that Asayish officers who confiscated the documents said they would be returned when the owners left the city or when they reached the Daquq checkpoint, 30 kilometers south of Kirkuk and the border of the governorate. Several Turkmen said that the Asayish arbitrarily detained them for several hours and, in some cases, beat them as part of efforts to compel them to leave the city.
Confiscating Turkmen families’ documents further marginalizes an already vulnerable group, Human Rights Watch said. These cards are two of four identification documents Iraqi citizens are regularly required to present when visiting government offices or institutions. A failure to present an ID when requested at a checkpoint can result in detention. Without both cards, individuals are not able to obtain humanitarian aid or other benefits. Without ID cards, they are unable to buy property, or vote in local or national elections.
One Turkmen man said that his son was in custody near Tikrit, “but I can’t even go visit my son in Tikrit because I have no ID card to travel.” All of those interviewed said they were struggling to provide for their families because they could not get food assistance without their cards.
International human rights and humanitarian law prohibit forced displacement because of a person’s religion or ethnicity. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide that all internally displaced people have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose their residence (principle 14). They also have the right to seek safety in another part of the country and to be protected against forcible return to any place where they would be at risk (principle 15). All humanitarian assistance should be provided without discrimination (principle 24).
In a written response to Human Rights Watch about its findings, Dr. Dindar Zebari, chairman of the KRG High Committee to Evaluate and Respond to International Reports, said that Kirkuk’s Asayish contend that:
There has not been such thing as a deadline for the refugees [i.e. displaced people] to leave Kirkuk, especially Sunni Turkmen as there has not been any kind of discrimination or ill-treatment against any religions or ethnicities. According to a decision by the Kirkuk governorate, governors and the Iraqi Council of Ministers, the refugees whose areas have been liberated months or a year ago are assisted to return to their original areas of residence. … For that reason, sometimes it has been necessary to take their documents for their return procedures so that the checkpoints will not prevent them from getting back their land and properties.
Dindar said that as displaced people passed through the relevant checkpoint, usually Daquq, authorities would return their documents.