UNHCR voices concerns over Iraqi government decision to close IDP camps

Move stipulates about 150,000 people must leave all camps by July 30

Displacement camps such as this one in Khazair will be closed. Getty Images
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The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concerns about the Iraqi government's plans to close all camps hosting families uprooted from their homes by conflict and an unstable security situation.

The government decision stipulates that all aid and services for displaced people will be halted and the camps closed by July 30.

The imminent closure “is leading many to feeling pressured to return home, rather than making a voluntary and informed decision”, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the representative of UNHCR in Iraq, told The National.

To encourage the displaced to return home, the government is offering each family a one-off payment of four million Iraqi dinars (about $2,750), a plasma TV, oven and refrigerator, in addition to aid parcels.

Despite the financial incentives, many IDPs remain reluctant to return to an area where they do not feel safe. The lack of reconstruction of their destroyed homes, continuing violence, tribal stigma and lack of services are among the many reasons why displaced people do not want to go back.

The decision covers 23 IDP camps hosting 30,000 families – about 150,000 people in total – from different parts of the country, according to the spokesman of the Ministry of Migration and Displacement, Ali Jahakir.

They are part of the more than two million people who fled their homes after ISIS emerged 10 years ago and seized control of large areas of land in northern and western Iraq. Though the extremist group has been destroyed territorially and attacks have decreased, reconstruction of the destroyed towns has been slow.

“International law is very clear that nobody must be forced to return to a place where they are at risk of irreparable harm or in the case of internally displaced, are unable to resume a decent life,” Mr Beuze said.

Almost seven years since the conclusion of large-scale military operations against ISIS, about one million Iraqis continue to live in displacement, he added. The overwhelming majority live in urban areas or informal settlements, he said.

He emphasised the complexity of the situation, noting that while some IDPs are ready to return if adequately supported, many others are not.

“The protracted displacement of IDPs in Iraq is no longer linked to the presence of Daesh in their areas of origin, but to a number of different factors,” he said, using the Arabic acronym of ISIS.

“Each displaced individual/family faces unique challenges and opportunities depending on their profile, their socio-economic status, as well as the situation in their area of origin,” he added.

While the decision to return home depends largely on whether they would have access to basic public services, “many remain traumatised by the abuse they were subjected to prior to fleeing and are still looking for justice and reconciliation”, he said.

Members of the Yazidi minority, who make up the bulk of the IDPs, say their areas of origin are not safe enough to return to, and public services are still scarce. Others cannot return because of their perceived links to ISIS.

In August 2014, ISIS extremists captured Sinjar and surrounding villages, taking thousands of Yazidis captive and slaughtering others. Thousands of young women were forced into sexual slavery by the group while mass graves containing the bodies of the thousands killed are still being uncovered.

'Dire conditions'

Most IDPs in Iraq “live in dire conditions mainly in tents, often sharing toilets and showers in camps or informal settlements that are below acceptable standards”, Mr Beuze said.

Some “face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement” due to perceived affiliation with ISIS and have limited access to basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation, he added.

UNHCR has warned the cessation of federal services to the camps will lead to a rapid deterioration of living conditions.

“Stopping electricity or water in the middle of the summer would have immediate, terrible consequences and would put lives at risk, especially of infants, elderly or sick displaced,” Mr Beuze warned.

He also stressed the importance of continuing education and healthcare services, noting that depriving more than 100,000 children of schooling would undermine their future, while leaving chronic patients without medical care could lead to irreversible consequences.

“UNHCR advocates with authorities so that services continue to be delivered in camps until all IDPs have found a durable solution,” he said.

The international and humanitarian partners must continue advocating with all the authorities that IDPs “be given the time to make an informed choice and be supported to exercise their right to either return home or settle elsewhere in Iraq”, he added.

“Everyone deserve to be treated with humanity, whether living in cities, in camps or in informal settlements, because of their displacement status,” he added.

Rights groups have warned against the closure of the camps, urging for all returns to be voluntary.

Iraq has already shut down most of the camps in federal Iraq and the July 30 deadline focuses on the ones in the Kurdistan region which host thousands of IDPs from federal Iraqi provinces.

Erbil has been reluctant to forcibly shut down the camps, prompting the Iraqi Minister of Migration and Displaced Evan Faeq Jabro to file a lawsuit against the regional government for not complying.

Updated: June 10, 2024, 2:03 PM