Government buses waiting to move families from one camp in Anbar governate to another during a previous wave of camp closures in December 2018. 

© 2018 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

(Beirut) – Local authorities have forcibly expelled more than 2,000 Iraqis from camps for displaced people in Nineveh governorate since August 23, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

Some were forced to return to their home regions, despite fears for their safety, including from former neighbors who perceive them as being linked to the Islamic State (ISIS). Some have come under attack since being forced home. Authorities in Nineveh have also blocked families who tried to leave the camps to avoid expulsion.

“Displaced people, like all other Iraqis, have the right to move freely in their country and decide where they feel safe to live,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities can’t move people without first consulting them, especially not to places where they and their families face danger.”

Authorities in Salah al-Din have also announced plans to close camps for displaced people or are already forcing people to return to their governorates of origin.

In early July, the National Security Council, which coordinates Iraq's national security, intelligence, and foreign policy strategy, passed “Resolution 16.” The resolution is not public, but officials have described its contents in letters to humanitarian organizations. It orders people from areas other than Nineveh – currently at least 38,040 people – to leave the Nineveh camps. It mandates security forces to develop a database of residents and isolate families who are perceived as ISIS-affiliated. The resolution also calls for increased security to keep people from entering or leaving camps without permission and assigning more police to the camps, to “control” people’s movement and to “assess and audit” the work of nongovernmental organizations who work in the camps.

In response, the authorities began screenings across the Nineveh camps. On August 21, Migration and Displacement Ministry officials informed aid workers at the two camps in Nineveh where screenings had been completed that they intended to expel everyone there from other governorates, starting with those from Anbar governorate, two aid workers said. Anbar is a former ISIS stronghold.

On August 23, security forces from the Nineveh Operations Command expelled 36 families from Anbar, most headed by women, totaling about 150 people , and transported them to their areas of origin in Anbar against their will and without letting them bring their belongings. They were told they were being taken to a camp in Anbar, three families told Human Rights Watch. The families called aid workers to express fears when they found they were actually being taken back home, and aid workers unsuccessfully tried to intervene.

An aid worker in Ramadi said that one of the families fled to a camp for displaced people 25 kilometers away after local residents threatened to kill them because of their perceived ISIS affiliation. Since August 25, 16 families who security forces had taken back to the Haditha area have been living in a public school encircled by police about three kilometers away because they feel unsafe, two told Human Rights Watch. They said that on August 28, someone threw a hand grenade at the school. No one inside was injured.

Two aid workers said that elsewhere in Anbar, local security forces said they denied at least six families entry to their areas of origin because of perceived ISIS affiliation. They said several more families have contacted aid groups asking for help to relocate to nearby camps because they feel unsafe.

Camp management did not have time to issue the deported Anbar families departure letters to help them pass through checkpoints, obtain security clearances in areas they returned to, and to apply for funds available for people returning.

After the expulsions, other families who are not from Nineveh started leaving the camps to avoid expulsion but on August 25, the Iraqi Army’s 16th division ordered camp management in at least two of the camps to prevent families from leaving. The army forced some departing families to return to the camps under threat of arrest, three of the families and aid workers said.

On August 28, security forces forcibly expelled from the same camps 151 families – at least 610 people – originally from Hawija, an area in western Kirkuk that continues to experience ISIS attacks and military operations, to camps in the Kirkuk area, an aid worker there said, causing food shortages in the camps they were transferred to. But two aid workers have since told Human Rights Watch that the Kirkuk governor later agreed to allow the families to continue living in camps there, instead of forcing them to return home.

Security forces also expelled at least another 671 people from Nineveh camps to a camp in Salah al-Din on August 31. Two families said that the morning after they arrived, two grenades hit the camp fence. One man, 50, said that he and other families did not feel safe there after social media posts – some containing veiled execution threats – urged local people to protest the families’ presence. Aid workers present said security forces transferred the families to another Salah al-Din camp on September 2 because of increased security concerns for the families. Residents at the new camp location launched protests when they heard of the families’ arrival.

On September 2, authorities expelled another 481 people from Nineveh camps to Salah al-Din, after keeping them waiting on buses for over five hours without a bathroom, food, or water.

The deputy governor of Salah al-Din, which currently houses at least 105,390 displaced people, told aid workers in June that he aimed to close most displaced people’s camps and informal settlement sites by early September, with statements from local officials in late August and early September that at least two camps would be closed by early September. By August 24, security forces had expelled more than 500 families from an informal settlement in Salah al-Din, an aid worker said.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement ensure displaced people’s rights to free movement and freedom to choose their residence, as well as their right to move freely in and out of camps.

Authorities in Iraq should not force people to return to or remain in specific locations and respect their right to free movement. They should immediately facilitate the return of families who want to return to areas not affected by ongoing military operations. And if authorities cannot ensure families’ safety, they should allow families to remain in or relocate to camps that allow for free movement or other areas where authorities can properly protect them.

In line with these standards, authorities should ensure that displaced people have at least seven days’ notice of their expulsions and provide a range of detailed options for safe assisted relocation. Authorities should ensure that camp management has time to issue departure letters needed to travel, resettle, and apply for assistance, and allow people to take their belongings with them.

“Over the last two weeks government has effectively transferred people into situations where they are being targeted with grenades and death threats,” Fakih said. “Before people board buses provided by the government transporting them from the camps, authorities should clarify where the buses are traveling so families can make an informed decision about how to keep themselves safe.”