Iraqis with suspected ISIS ties deprived of basic services following camp closures, rights watchdog says

Families wait for food distribution at the Hasansham camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdistan Region, Dec. 10, 2020 (Photo: Florent Vergnes/AFP)
Families wait for food distribution at the Hasansham camp for internally displaced people in the Kurdistan Region, Dec. 10, 2020 (Photo: Florent Vergnes/AFP)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Iraqi government’s decision to close and evict thousands of people from displacement camps has created a vulnerable population with no access to basic services, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday.

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government is trying to shut the door on the displacement issue and return thousands of Iraqis to homes they fled when ISIS occupied large swathes of the country from 2014 to 2017. The government plan came into force in mid-October 2020 with the closure of a series of the displacement camps around the country.

So far 16 camps have been closed in areas that fall under the authority of the federal government while those in the autonomous Kurdistan Region remain operational.

Kadhimi’s government intends to return the displaced population to their places of origin, a move that has exacerbated the already fragile condition of the IDPs as they are left with no access to water, security, and healthcare services upon their return. This is mainly due to a discriminatory application of Iraq’s 2009 compensation law, HRW found.

People with perceived ties to ISIS now face administrative hurdles that prevent them from getting vital documents and accessing benefits and services, including personal identity cards, birth certificates, and ration cards, according to the rights watchdog.

Post-ISIS, one of the issues Iraq faces is the return of a population with perceived ties to ISIS. The terrorist group effectively ruled one-third of the country for three years before it was defeated by the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdistan Region Peshmerga backed by the international coalition.

Human rights groups and the United Nations have voiced concerns over the Iraqi judiciary’s handling of ISIS suspects, calling their trials “seriously flawed.”

“The authorities and communities are labeling people as ISIS-affiliated based on suspicions that a relative joined ISIS or was sympathetic to the group,” the HRW report said, adding these labels are given to the families “without any evidence.”

Families with even one suspected ISIS member are deprived from accessing support mandated by a 2009 law for the victims of military operations. The Compensating the Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Actions law entitles survivors of conflict to compensation for property or material damage, regardless of which side inflicted it.

But due to their perceived links to ISIS, families returning from the camps are not given security clearances or other documentation needed to access compensation.

“I can’t even afford my share of the rent,” the report quoted one woman as saying. 

The woman, a widow with five children, said she depended on families and charity and was “constantly afraid of us getting evicted.”

Despite the lack of services, the camps provide access to clean water, food, electricity, and health services.

“The camp was better for us, I had a job there and we were receiving food and hygiene kits and didn’t have to pay rent,” another returnee told HRW. “Given that, I cannot understand why the authorities would have forced us to return to a village with no standing homes and no services.”

The Kurdistan Region has not closed down any of its refugee and IDP camps and continues to host nearly a million people displaced from Iraq during the war against ISIS, according to the regional crisis management authority, although officials say they support the “safe and voluntary return” of displaced people.

Around 70 percent of the expenditure for displaced people is covered by the Kurdistan Regional Government, while international humanitarian groups handle the rest.

Analysis

One of the reasons for the rise of ISIS in Iraq, according to pundits and observers, was years of misgovernance that made people feel marginalized, leading to instability and creating a hotbed for extremist groups. 

Forcing people out of displacement camps without adequate government support in their places of origin leaves the country open to the same consequences it witnessed seven years ago.

Deep-rooted corruption, a lack of basic services, and stagnant prospects for young people have already fueled a protest movement that has led to the deaths of 400 Iraqis since October 2019.

Ongoing political instability, foreign influence and the financial squeeze exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to ravage the country. The cost of depriving returnees and repeating the same mistakes that led to the rise of ISIS is likely high given the undesirable conditions in Iraq. 

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly