As the winter season approaches, thousands of Iraq’s displaced are faced with the prospect of spending the colder months without a home. The Iraqi government is pushing to have dozens of camps for these refugees shut down by the end of the year, to encourage people to return to their homes.
Closing these sites is, at least in theory, a positive move that is long overdue. The overcrowded camps, where people live in dire, unsanitary conditions, cannot become permanent homes for the displaced.
More than 3 million Iraqis have been displaced since 2014, according to data by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with more than half of them living in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Many had to leave everything behind as they ran for their lives, either from the violence of ISIS or that of Iranian-backed extremist militias. For Iraq’s minorities, notably the Yazidis, they had no choice but to flee their homeland or face genocide. Many Christians and Yazidis still fear persecution should they go back home.
And so, for years, internally displaced Iraqis have been living in makeshift homes and camps, unable to leave yet wishing they did not have to stay. Poor hygiene and a lack of basic services have turned these sites into public health hazards with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. It is nearly impossible to practice physical distancing and sanitise properly in these conditions. Closing down these camps is, according to government officials, the best way to help the displaced return and redirect NGO funds towards reconstruction efforts under way in destroyed regions of Iraq.
Unfortunately, this option is not always possible. Many have had their homes obliterated during the conflict, while others face security challenges, including persecution, should they return to their hometowns. Even for those who still have a home to return to, basic services such as electricity, water and education are often lacking in remote, heavily damaged areas, especially in the north-west, as reconstruction efforts have stalled since the fall of ISIS in Iraq in December 2017.
And many camp residents have voiced concerns that they have been asked to move out abruptly, without any relocation plans or help from the government. For instance, residents of the camps at Habbaniyah Tourist City, a former luxury resort, 80 kilometres west of Baghdad, were given one month to vacate the premises. Meanwhile, people living in the largest camp in Nineveh - the northern province where Mosul is located - said that they were given one week’s notice to pack up their bags and leave. As a result, many are afraid they will end up on the streets.
Previous experiences do not bode well for these new closures. In October, at least five Iraqi camps were closed down, yet half of all residents did not return to their hometowns. The Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO, has warned that these closures could leave 100,000 Iraqis in limbo as the winter approaches. Long-time camp residents are now faced with the prospect of further displacement, with no long-term plan for their resettlement.
Iraq has witnessed waves of violence that forced its people flee their homes, but the last one ended in 2017 with the fall of ISIS in the country. Since then, successive governments were unable, or unwilling, to carve out comprehensive plans for reconstruction and for the resettlement of internally displaced Iraqis, as funds were either lacking or siphoned.
But this time around, Iraq has a chance to do things right. Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi is a reformist who can reverse this trend and empower the displaced to return home safely. Such an effort cannot be carried out overnight. It requires long-term planning, in concert with local authorities and displaced people to assess their needs on the ground, as well as longer notice periods before camp residents leave. Only then can they be prevented from being pushed into more misery.