DRC reveals dire situation for returnees to Sinjar, Yathrib as urgent humanitarian response needed

While the government's plan to close IDP camps aims to address long-term displacement, it must be accompanied by substantial support measures to ensure that returnees can rebuild their lives with dignity and security.
Photo of a destroyed family home in Sinjar. (Photo: SAFIN HAMID/AFP)
Photo of a destroyed family home in Sinjar. (Photo: SAFIN HAMID/AFP)

ERBIL (Kurdistan24) - In a recent confidential briefing, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has highlighted the severe challenges facing returnees to Sinjar and Yathrib following the Iraqi government's decision to close all remaining formal IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps in Iraq by July 30, 2024.

This decision, affecting approximately 150,000 individuals, poses significant risks to already vulnerable populations, many of whom are returning to areas lacking basic infrastructure and services.

This article delves into the current situation, the experiences of the returnees, and the urgent need for a coordinated humanitarian response.

A view of Sinjar. (Photo AFP)
A view of Sinjar. (Photo AFP)

 

Context and Background

On January 23, 2024, the Council of Ministers announced the closure of the last 23 IDP camps in Iraq, most of which are located in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

The DRC report states that these camps, spread across Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaimani governorates, have been home to thousands of families displaced by years of conflict and instability.

Since the announcement, 1,938 families have left these camps, facing uncertain futures as they attempt to rebuild their lives in their areas of origin.

Displaced Yazidis stand by their tents at the Chamishko camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the city of Zakho in the north of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on May 5, 2022. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP)
Displaced Yazidis stand by their tents at the Chamishko camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the city of Zakho in the north of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on May 5, 2022. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP)

 

The demographics of these camps vary, influencing the likelihood of their closure.

Camps in Duhok predominantly host Yazidis, many of whom are hesitant to return home due to ongoing security concerns and traumatic memories.

Camps in Erbil, including those in East Mosul, mainly house Sunni Arabs, many of whom struggle to obtain security clearances due to perceived affiliations with ISIS, most of which are only suspicions without evidence. 

In contrast, camps in Sulaimani also house Sunni Arabs but with fewer ISIS-related suspicions, presenting a different set of challenges.

Premature Returns and Insufficient Support

The report suggests that decision to close the camps has forced many IDPs to return prematurely to their areas of origin.

According to the report's findings, since January, over 1,000 families have departed from Sulaimani, more than 650 from Duhok, and 263 from Erbil. Many of these families had already registered to leave before the government's decision, but the announcement accelerated their departure.

Nearly 85,000 IDPs from Sinjar are scattered across camps in Erbil and Duhok, with a smaller number in Sulaimani. Many returnees report that their homes are either destroyed or significantly damaged, requiring extensive rebuilding efforts.

The high cost of reconstruction, estimated at $10,000 USD or more, is a significant barrier for these families, many of whom lack financial resources and face bureaucratic hurdles in accessing compensation schemes.

A view of a destroyed building in Sinjar. (Photo AFP)
A view of a destroyed building in Sinjar. (Photo AFP)

 

Experiences of Returnees: Sinjar and Yathrib

The returnees' experiences paint a grim picture of life after displacement.

As the report suggests, in Sinjar, vast areas remain in ruins, with many families cohabiting in disused buildings or tents. The government's compensation scheme (Law no. 20), intended to support those affected by military operations, is plagued by delays and bureaucratic obstacles.

A kid looks outside through a window in Sinjar. (Photo AFP)
A kid looks outside through a window in Sinjar. (Photo AFP)

 

Many returnees have applied for compensation years ago but have yet to receive any support.

The report underlines a smiliar situation in Yathrib, as returnees face similar challenges.

The majority cannot move into their previous homes due to extensive damage, and many are forced to live in makeshift shelters. A recent assessment found that 80% of houses in Yathrib remain destroyed or damaged.

The high cost of building materials and the lack of adequate services exacerbate the situation, leaving returnees in a precarious position.

Services and Infrastructure: Gaps and Challenges

The report highlights that the reconstruction efforts in Sinjar and Yathrib are ongoing but insufficient to meet the needs of returnees.

In Sinjar, the construction of new roads, water systems, and electricity extensions is underway, but these services are not yet fully operational.

A woman walks along the road in a destroyed neighborhood in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)
A woman walks along the road in a destroyed neighborhood in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)

 

Returnees report relying on costly bottled water due to the poor quality of the current water supply and using generators to cope with inconsistent electricity.

In Yathrib, access to drinking water remains a critical issue. The community relies on purchasing bottled water, which is unsustainable as financial resources deplete.

The area's unpaved roads and limited electricity supply further complicate daily life. Many families used their settlement grants to buy air conditioning units, which provide limited relief in the extreme heat but require expensive fuel to operate.

Many of the roads and buildings are in the state of ruin in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)
Many of the roads and buildings are in the state of ruin in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)

 

Livelihoods and Economic Recovery

The DRC report indicates that the access to income-generating opportunities is a major concern for returnees in both Sinjar and Yathrib.

In Sinjar, those who relied on agriculture find their farms destroyed, lacking critical irrigation systems. The high prices of livestock, machinery, and seeds are significant obstacles to restarting agricultural activities.

A family shown in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)
A family shown in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)

 

Women, in particular, emphasize the need for employment opportunities for their sons, who are now primary breadwinners.

In Yathrib, the destruction of farms has devastated the local economy. The community urgently needs to restore irrigation systems and secure resources for livestock and seeds.

Without these essential supports, many returnees risk falling deeper into poverty and facing secondary displacement.

Future Intentions and Recommendations

The report also indicates that the returnees express mixed feelings about their future.

In Sinjar, many are weary of living in tents and hope to rebuild their homes, though they fear being displaced again if conditions do not improve.

The view of a damaged building in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)
The view of a damaged building in Sinjar. (Photo: AFP)

 

Some have moved to Sulaimani to find employment and save money for reconstruction. In Yathrib, returnees regret leaving the camps in KRI, where they had access to services, and express a desire to return if possible.

To prevent further hardship and secondary displacement, the DRC offers several recommendations:

1. Prevent Encouragement of Premature Returns: Ensure that IDPs are not pressured to return to areas lacking basic services and infrastructure.

2. Continue Service Provision in KRI Camps: Maintain support for IDPs in KRI camps whose areas of origin remain uninhabitable.

3. Provide Temporary Provisions: Urgently supply water, shelter, and temporary schools to meet the basic needs of returnees.

4. Streamline Compensation Processes: Simplify and expedite the distribution of compensation grants to enable home reconstruction.

5. Rehabilitate Essential Services: Accelerate efforts to restore water, electricity, and other critical services in return areas.

6. Support Livelihoods: Assist communities in restarting agricultural activities and other income-generating ventures.

Conclusion

The situation for returnees to Sinjar and Yathrib underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive and coordinated humanitarian response.

While the government's plan to close IDP camps aims to address long-term displacement, it must be accompanied by substantial support measures to ensure that returnees can rebuild their lives with dignity and security.

Immediate interventions are essential to prevent further suffering and to enable these communities to recover from years of conflict and displacement.