Plan to bring Iraqis back from Syria ISIS camp shelved at last minute

Efforts to take 30,000 Iraqis out of Al Hol are controversial with locals

Veiled women, reportedly wives and members of the Islamic State, walk under the supervision of a female fighter from the Syrian Democatic Forces (SDF) at Al Hol camp in Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on February 17, 2019. / AFP / BULENT KILIC
Veiled women, reportedly wives and members of the Islamic State, walk under the supervision of a female fighter from the Syrian Democatic Forces (SDF) at Al Hol camp in Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria on February 17, 2019. / AFP / BULENT KILIC

A controversial plan by Baghdad to transfer hundreds of Iraqi families detained in North-East Syria to northern Iraq has been delayed at the 11th hour following a campaign of pressure, Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish officials told The National.

A bus convoy sent to Hasakeh in Syria by the Iraqi government this week returned without detainees after pressure forced Baghdad to delay plans to bring 100 families back until after Eid.

More than 30,000 Iraqis are detained at the Al Hol camp, with many having emerged from Baghouz, the border town where ISIS made its final stand in 2019.

Yet, while the Kurdish authorities in Syria have called on foreign states to take back their nationals, Iraq, the foreign state with the largest contingent, has largely failed.

The 100 families were set to be among the first Iraqis in Al Hol to be returned to Iraq under plans to detain them in a new camp near the town of Qayarrah.

Iraqis held in Al Hol, are widely seen by their communities as having links to ISIS, with many of them having fled to Syria from Iraq as the group’s so-called caliphate withered after 2016.

Still, the plan to transfer Iraqis to a new camp, south of Mosul, has drawn fierce criticism, with locals claiming that those transferred are á threat to the local community.

The plan has been tabled several times in recent years, drawing scorn from locals on all occasions. Yet, with the site well under construction and the busses dispatched, this week’s efforts appeared the closest to bringing it into action.

Speaking to The National, Sherwan Dubardani, Member of the Iraqi Parliament for Nineveh, said the local community had flatly rejected the plans.

“The families are not only from Nineveh but from Anbar, Salaheddine, Babylon, Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Diyala,” Mr Dubardani said. “Mosul’s government, people, and MPs categorically refute this transfer, and we will follow up with the federal government to entirely cancel this plan.”

He added he would work to block any move to transfer the families to camps in Nineveh governorate.

Despite the dire conditions within Al Howl, security sources within the camp said many of the Iraqi detainees are reluctant to go back.

“They think the government will pass them on to the PMF [Popular Mobilisation Forces],” the source said, referring to the largely Shia militias that have risen to become a major player in Iraq’s security sector since the fall of ISIS.

Belkis Wille, Senior Crisis & Conflict Researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The National that merely transferring Iraqis from Al Hol to the new camp, known as Al Jadah would do little to address the underlying issues, and may represent a crime in itself.

"These people, as far we know are not yet suspects of crimes, and as long as they are not, the government has to let them return to their communities, or go somewhere else if they don’t feel safe,” she said.

“If the government plan is to put them in a camp, where they are effectively prisoners, where they don’t have papers, it is illegal, it is collective punishment. Having these camps creates prolonged displacement and a situation in which people are further stigmatised merely by the fact they have been in these camps. It is not good for Iraq and or the future of the country.”

A spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces confirmed to The National that the transfer had been cancelled by the Iraqi government.

“The process of moving them to Iraq has been postponed by Iraq’s government. However, this is the second time that the process was postponed by the Iraqi government. Until now, the Iraqi government didn’t provide clarification about this repeated adjournment.”

A spokesperson for Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration said that no Iraqis would be transferred for now, but did not comment on wider efforts.

Published: May 10, 2021 03:44 PM

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