The beginnings of a gate erected in Jadah 5 camp intended to enclose a section of the camp to prevent free movement. 

© 2019 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Erbil) – A local Iraqi organization managing a camp for displaced people is making preparations to unlawfully confine families scheduled to be transferred from northeast Syria, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Jadah 5 camp, 65 kilometers south of Mosul, has forcibly relocated 175 families from one sector of the camp to another in order to make room for the families, mostly women and children. Iraqi authorities have previously arbitrarily detained families perceived to have possible ISIS affiliation.

“Authorities in Iraq are planning to detain returning families arbitrarily, in violation of Iraqi and international law,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Segregating families – mainly women and children – coming from Syria is a step toward stigmatizing and labeling them in the absence of any credible allegation that they have committed a crime.”

Human Rights Watch visited the Jadah 5 camp, estimated to house over 16,000 people on July 16, 2019. Four residents in the sector known as “400,” because of the number of tents, said that camp management told the 175 families there on July 10 that they had to relocate to other camp areas. The rest of the tents in the sector were empty. The families currently living in the camp are generally able to move freely within and outside the camp within its immediate vicinity.

They said the camp head told them they had to move, apparently because they planned to detain the new arrivals. “If you don’t move you will regret it,” two of the residents quoted one camp management official as saying. “It will become like prison and you will need permission to come in and out, you won’t be able to move freely.” He said the families would be brought from al-Hol camp in northeast Syria, which holds Iraqi, Syrian, and foreign families who lived under ISIS in Syria.

Another camp management official told the group that the arriving families “have the same extremist ideology… it is not in your interest to live next to them,” the residents said.

Iraqi authorities said on July 9 that al-Hol families would be relocated to the camp. But the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, told aid groups and camp management on July 10 that Jadah 5 would not house the al-Hol families, three aid workers said. They said that authorities have not indicated when these families will be transferred or how long they would be confined in camps before being allowed to move freely.

By the evening of July 11, the families from “400” had all relocated within the camp, with the exception of four or five families who left the camp, residents told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch visited the section on July 16 and found it empty, with the beginnings of a fence being erected around it. Two other residents said camp management also told families in sector “500,” which holds about 240 families, that they would need to relocate. But the families interviewed refused and threatened to protest and had not been forced to move at the time of the visit, possibly because aid agencies intervened. Both “400” and “500” areas are isolated outcrops of the camp.

Al-Hol camp holds 30,000 Iraqis in northeast Syria, the vast majority of them female-headed households, often including many children. Some fled ISIS when it controlled parts of Iraq, and others lived under ISIS control in Syria until the battle to retake Baghouz, ISIS’s final pocket in Syria in early 2019. Few, if any, have been charged with any crime. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine the extent to which the families in al-Hol, who aid workers say have signed up to voluntarily return, have done so with informed consent, given that that Iraqi authorities seemingly plan to arbitrarily detain them in camps.

A United Nations plan from early 2019 for the return of Iraqi families from al-Hol, which Human Rights Watch has reviewed, calls on Iraqi authorities to ensure that the families are not sequestered into one specific camp but are instead mixed with existing camp populations. It said this would ensure that the families would not be further stigmatized and marginalized. The plan said that international assistance to these families would depend on compliance with these conditions.

International human rights law prohibits arbitrary detention. Any deprivation of liberty must be according to law that is “accessible, understandable, non-retroactive and applied in a consistent and predictable way” and allows people to seek judicial review of their detention. Any detention that lacks such legal basis is both unlawful and arbitrary.

International human rights law and humanitarian law allow punishment only for people found responsible for crimes after a fair trial to determine individual guilt. Imposing collective punishment on families, villages, or communities violates the laws of war and amounts to a war crime. Under international human rights law and the laws of armed conflict, children may be detained only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period. If children are detained, detaining authorities must fulfill their rights, including to appropriate food and medical care, education and physical exercise, legal assistance, privacy, complaints mechanisms, and contact with their families.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stipulate that if displacement occurs in situations other than during the emergency stages of a conflict, “Adequate measures shall be taken to guarantee to those to be displaced full information on the reasons and procedures for their displacement and, where applicable, on compensation and relocation… The free and informed consent of those to be displaced shall be sought… The authorities concerned shall endeavour to involve those affected, particularly women, in the planning and management of their relocation… The right to an effective remedy, including the review of such decisions by appropriate judicial authorities, shall be respected.”

In light of recent developments, authorities should suspend all transfers until they are able to ensure that they are voluntary and that Iraqis have adequate information about what awaits them upon their return, Human Rights Watch said. Once people are in Iraq, if they are not wanted for a crime, authorities should ensure that their rights to free movement are respected, including either to return home or to relocate where they choose, as security allows. Iraqi authorities should ensure that they do not confine people not charged with any crime in camps.