Iraq: Trapped in a limbo - Iraq’s displaced minorities and the difficulties of return

By Mays Al-Juboori

With more than 3 million Iraqis still internally displaced, the country’s protracted crisis – driven in large part by the 2014 offensive of ISIS through northern Iraq – is still a long way from being resolved, even with the apparent retreat of its forces from Mosul and other strongholds. Ensuring the safe return to Ninewa and other areas of former residents, many of whom belong to minorities actively targeted in the recent violence, will depend not only the defeat of ISIS but also an end to discrimination and abuses by all sides.

While the scale of displacement is a national crisis, the experiences of minority communities in displacement is often distinct, shaped by a broader context of marginalization and exclusion still evident today. Geography is one element in this: migration flows in Iraq have followed identifiable patterns in the current crisis, with Christian and Yezidi communities primarily seeking refuge in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KR-I) while other minority groups, such as Shabak and Turkmen, have fled to Najaf and Kerbela in the south of the country.

Ashti Camp in Erbil, for example, is largely occupied by Christian families originating in the Ninewa governorate of Iraq. Until 2016, the camp consisted of two caravan-type settlements: Ashti 1 and Ashti 2. Erected inside a warehouse, Ashti 2 had markedly worse conditions than its sister settlement site, including severe overcrowding, dampness and vermin infestation. The social tensions resulting from tight confinement within the camp were indicated in the disputes occurring between individuals and families, who further demonstrated extreme emotional distress concerning their circumstances. Ashti 2 has now closed, and its residents provided with accommodation within Ashti 1.

Since then, there have been some positive changes. International funding to Ashti Camp and donations to its Christian institutional management have helped expand the camp facilities to include a medical centre, a youth entertainment centre, a church and a playground. Electricity and water are both available and accessible on the premises. Women are able to participate in vocational activities in the camp and small businesses have been established by IDPs within the site, as the effects of displacement have taken a toll on the livelihoods of displaced families. Ashti 2 has further been converted into store spaces available to lease by IDPs at a fraction of actual rental costs.

But while physical conditions in the camp are improving, the challenges of living in displacement are still prevalent. IDPs complain of having limited access to healthcare for long-term illnesses and are unable to afford treatment for major injuries. One IDP, for instance, explained that his arm, broken in several places during an attack by ISIS in 2014, remains untreated as he is unable to pay for the necessary medical treatment. And, despite livelihood opportunities being available for some, the majority of IDPs at Ashti are largely dependent on their life savings, now rapidly depleting as a result of the protracted nature of their displacement.

As a result, an increasing number of families from Ashti Camp are choosing to emigrate before exhausting their savings, as prospects of their return to their areas of origin remain uncertain. The caravans of those who leave are quickly filled by other families in the camp experiencing overcrowding or by Christian IDPs who can no longer afford to rent accommodation during their displacement. The loss of livelihood, combined with other stress factors, has had an inevitable impact on displaced people’s psychosocial wellbeing and self-esteem.

Yet the difference between settlements like Ashti, managed by the government or religious institutions, and those categorized as ‘critical shelters’ such as unfinished structures, informal settlements and empty or abandoned buildings such as schools, is stark. Elsewhere in Khanke, where a formal camp housing displaced Yezidis is based, another informal camp next to it also exists with little in the way of basic services – no functional sewage system, no education centre, no health facilities and little in the way of running water or electricity. This settlement, also occupied largely by Yezidis, has been built by the IDPs themselves and suffers from severe overcrowding, with up to 11 individuals in every tent. As the volatility of IDP movements has made planning new camps difficult, informal settlements have only grown in size, while admission into formal camps remains hindered by issues of capacity and ethnic affiliation.

For Yezidis in Khanke informal settlement, hopes of emigrating are offset by financial hardship. Returning home is equally unfeasible due to issues of limited security, lack of services, destruction of homes and restrictions on freedom of movement in retaken areas. The conditions of displacement have nevertheless caused a pressing desire among Yezidi youth to escape camp life. Many have indicated their intention and readiness to join any anti-ISIS armed group in the conflict, regardless of political affiliations or group legitimacy. Indeed, a large number of young IDPs from Khanke informal camp have either registered on recruitment waiting lists or are awaiting their opportunity for enlistment.

Many IDPs who remain in Iraq are living in limbo, either lacking the resources to flee the country, unable to return or simply unwilling to give up on their land. Yet exercising rights to property and land is a challenge for IDPs – and this remains a critical gap in their ability to return. Christian families have often complained of their abandoned homes being used and occupied by Kurdish Peshmerga and affiliated forces for military purposes in territories retaken from ISIS. Further to this, there have been widespread reports of looting and destruction of IDP property by forces that fought ISIS.

One IDP from Kharabat reported finding his land and other properties to be intact after his town was retaken from ISIS, but upon returning to Kharabat 15 days later the trees and plants had been uprooted from the farms, some houses were demolished and others had been taken over as bases by the Peshmerga, including his home. ‘The Peshmerga,’ he concluded ‘are creating a situation that does not permit return.’ Christian IDPs from Tel Eskof similarly described returning to check on their homes several times after ISIS had lost control over their territories, only to find more property looted each time, despite having secured their homes and land with industrial locks. Satellite imagery of the area southwest of Mosul corroborates these accounts, in capturing the destruction of hundreds of buildings in a number of villages through use of explosives, heavy machinery and fire that occurred after anti-ISIS forces regained control. There is no evidence to suggest that demolitions were undertaken for legitimate military purposes.

Government forces, Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), Kurdish Peshmerga and intelligence units have all been accused of the wholesale destruction of retaken villages, and in the process denying IDPs their right to land and property, allegedly aiming to ensure that former inhabitants do not return. Indeed, as ISIS is defeated, conflicts over territorial control and competing political ambitions are likely to emerge. As a result, territorial encroachments have occurred and are likely to continue in the absence of any definitive plan for the governorate of Ninewa – home to the majority of Iraq’s displaced minorities.

Minority representatives express concern about ongoing tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government, fearing that attaching the ‘disputed territories’ title to minority lands retaken from ISIS will strengthen the claim of both governments to minority territory and hinder minority rights to their land. These fears are fuelled by KRG’s territorial ambitions, not only indicated by the political rhetoric of regional government officials, but also in the KRG’s marking of a 650-mile trench running from Sinjar in Ninewa to Khanaqin in Diyala, which increases the KR-I territorial mass by up to 40 per cent.

Abuses against minorities in the current conflict, combined with deeply entrenched discrimination and longstanding marginalization, have led many to believe that there is no place for their community in Iraq. Frustrations regarding the political ambitions of Erbil, Baghdad and other actors restricting returns to minority lands have sparked concerns about demographic change, and the overwhelming perception among the displaced is that they possess no control over their ability to return home, be this a result of politics, security or destruction. In this regard, while much attention is at present focused on the military defeat of ISIS, creating an environment where protections are in place for minority communities – in particular, full assurance of their land and property rights – is essential to ensure a peaceful and inclusive post-conflict settlement for all in Iraq. 

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: UNFPA/Millat Hirori

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Date: 13/12/2017




Racism/Discrimination/Hate speech
Religion/Religious minorities

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