(Beirut) –The ongoing closures of Iraq’s displaced persons camps on short notice is forcing some residents into homelessness and poverty, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly said that the authorities should allow freedom of movement for residents of camps, which in some cases have functioned like open-air prisons. The government’s renewed action to facilitate documentation for families is a positive step toward this goal. But the authorities should not force camp residents out without first ensuring they have alternative access to shelter, food, water, health care, and other basic services in a safe and secure environment.
“Reintegrating families who have spent years in camps back into Iraqi society so they can start to lead a normal life is a positive step.” said Belkis Wille, senior crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But the current approach of forcing people out of camps that have provided them with food, shelter, and security for years, often with only 24 hours’ notice, makes them even more vulnerable.”
In October 2020, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi formed a committee with the mandate to close about 17 camps, currently housing at least 60,337 people. The camps house people displaced by fighting between the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Iraqi forces between 2014 and 2017. Since mid-October, authorities have closed 11 camps and rendered another two into informal settlements, forcing out at least 27,191 residents, mostly women and children, according to aid workers. At the time of publication, in Baghdad-controlled areas only five remained open and more camp closures were ongoing.
The committee has said that it aims to close all camps in Baghdad-controlled territories by December 2020, and those in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq by 2021, three aid workers told Human Rights Watch. Many of the families have stayed because they have been unable to obtain civil documentation and because they fear retaliation if they return home because they may have family links to ISIS. Others are unable to afford rent, basic services, or to rebuild their destroyed homes, or their home areas lack basic services including health care and education.
Human Rights Watch reporting has documented that the Iraqi authorities have generally made decisions on where these families can live without adequate consultation, deciding either to leave them in the area which they fled, move them to another camp, or force them to return to their home areas. Up until now, the government has not undertaken a thoughtful analysis of each family’s specific situation and vulnerabilities before forcing them out of camps. Aid workers said the government is trying to develop a returns plan with these elements in mind but does not have this in place yet. The government’s newest push to close all remaining camps is so rapid that it is forcing people out with no time for them to figure out where it would be safe for them to go or how to get housing.
From November 11 to 17, 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed five residents of Hammam al-Alil (HAA) camp in Nineveh and three residents of Habbaniya Tourist City (HTC) camp, all of whom requested anonymity. The authorities closed HAA on November 14, forcing out at least 8,585 residents. HTC was closed on November 11, though the authorities allowed the site to remain open on an informal basis because over 200 families in the camp had nowhere safe to go. Before forcing camp residents out, security forces in HAA conducted a “security screening” of the residents, and as part of the process helped facilitate access to civil documentation for families missing identity documents.
Security forces had previously denied security clearances required to obtain identity documents and other essential civil documentation to thousands of Iraqi families perceived to have ISIS affiliation, usually because of their family name, tribal affiliation, or area of origin. This denied them freedom of movement, their rights to education and work, and access to social benefits and birth and death certificates needed to inherit property or remarry. The authorities have prevented thousands of children without civil documentation from enrolling in government schools, including schools inside camps for displaced people. The efforts to issue documents alongside these closures is a positive development.
However, aid workers at HTC and HAA told Human Rights Watch that the authorities there had forced some families to engage in a process known as tabriya in order to get their security clearance before leaving the camp. The process of tabriya requires them to open a criminal complaint disavowing any relative suspected of having joined ISIS. After they file the complaint, the court issues them a document to present to security forces enabling them to obtain their security clearances.
After completing the screenings and issuing documents, security forces only gave camp residents Human Rights Watch interviewed between one and seven days to choose whether they would return home or settle elsewhere in the country, with most given only 24 hours. None of them got free government transportation if they were not returning to their homes, nor any financial support, although the government had promised to give all returnees a compensation package of US$1,500. It is unclear whether families who did not return to their homes but resettled elsewhere will ever receive the package.
All of the families interviewed said they would not return home because of concerns for their personal safety. Some were able to move elsewhere, though they were struggling to afford the rent. A man from Anbar who was forced out of HTC said that security forces gave him the option to move to another camp in the area that has not yet been closed, but he refused and instead chose to rent a home in another city.
“Since 2017, the authorities have relocated me three times,” he said. “I don’t know why they keep moving people from one camp to another. If the government is not going to give us some compensation so we can rebuild our homes and afford basic services and guarantee our safety, then why are they closing the camps?”
According to aid workers tracking the camp expulsions, many of the families forced out of HAA have since reported that they were struggling to afford basic services in the areas where they had ended up. Aid workers who have followed camp departures from August to October said that 50 percent of displaced people had less access to food upon leaving and 60 percent said they had less access to water. Twenty-five percent said they were not able to get health care. These figures are of particular concern as the weather gets colder and the Covid-19 pandemic rages on in Iraq. Aid workers also said some families were suffering from “daily harassment” and blackmail at the hands of their local communities since returning.
Four of the residents interviewed said they had wanted to return home but that local residents had blocked their return, forcing them into further displacement and leaving some even more vulnerable.
Iraq is obligated under international law to protect, respect, and fulfill the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes ensuring that everyone has adequate food, water, sanitation, and housing. Article 30 of Iraq’s constitution states that, “The State shall guarantee to the individual and the family – especially children and women – social and health security, the basic requirements for living a free and decent life, and shall secure for them suitable income and appropriate housing.”
The authorities should ensure that every person in Iraq has access to their civil documentation, and should halt all efforts to push residents out of camps until they renew the residents’ identity documents. Before closing any camp, the authorities should ensure that families in the camps have a minimum of 30 days and are given enough information to decide where they want to resettle, as well as accessible transportation to their preferred location.
The authorities should ensure that they provide families with damaged homes with the financial resources to rent a property as well as financial assistance to help them rebuild their homes. The authorities should also ensure that families who cannot afford to pay for food, electricity, water, and other basic services have access to all of these without charge.
“While the aim of this push to close camps seems to be to improve stability across the country, stripping people of the only access they have to shelter, food, and water and sending thousands into further displacement will actually have the opposite effect,” Wille said.
Families Prevented from Returning Home
Three HAA camp residents told Human Rights Watch that they wanted to return to their hometown, Qayyarah in Nineveh. But once the closures were announced, their town’s mayor visited the camp and informed them that he could not vouch for their safety if they returned. He warned of vigilante violence against them for their perceived links to ISIS. One woman, age 28, with three young children said:
I don’t know where to go. I can’t return to my village. My house is destroyed, and anyway, the community would not accept me back. I can’t afford rent somewhere else because I am a single mother with no income. I felt safe with my children here in the camp, with aid workers around. I am a young woman, and outside of a camp, I might be exposed to sexual harassment. They should let me to stay here rather than exposing me to further risks outside the camp.
Another woman from Qayyarah said that armed forces were occupying her home, so even if she did risk returning, she would have nowhere to live. She has five children and is taking care of three more. She said that though she had found a house in Mosul to rent, she had no stable income to afford it. “If the government could help me safely go back to Qayyarah and sell my house, then I could afford to buy a new house in Mosul,” she said.
A woman who had been living in HTC, whose husband is in jail on terrorism charges, said that she was thrilled when security forces told her on November 1 that she could return home to her village in Jazirah al-Khaldiyah, a subdistrict in Anbar:
They promised that if we decided to go home, they would guarantee our safety. On November 8, a group of seven families headed back to my village, escorted by two military vehicles. While we were at the checkpoint to enter our village, an old man came and said that he knew us all personally and that we were not allowed to return home. The military tried to negotiate with him but it didn’t work, and so they forced me to move to another camp in the area, saying I was not allowed to go back to HTC because it was being closed. I want to be stable in one place so I can register my children in school and have a normal life like everyone else.
According to the aid workers, at least 121 families from HAA camp and 503 families from HTC have been unable to return to their homes and have been forced to move to nearby camps that remain open for now. Aid workers who have followed camp departures said that 33 percent of the displaced people were ultimately not able to return to their home areas, with over 60 percent of women they spoke to saying they could not return home because of concerns for their personal security.
A man with seven children from Shura district in Nineveh said that security forces gave him 24 hours’ notice to leave HAA. “They gave us the option to go wherever we wanted, but they didn’t give us time to prepare or even plan where to go,” he said. “Many of us didn’t have houses still standing to go back to, and some of us would face security risks if we went home to areas where there are tribal tensions.” He said he was currently renting a home in a town where he thought he might be safe, but that he had limited means to keep up on his rent payments.