‘I can’t go back’: Iraq’s displaced families face yet more hardship as camps close

Since late October, 15 camps have been closed in different areas, while still seven others will be closed in the coming weeks

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Facing threats in her home town, Nahida Wasmi Khalid had no choice but to cram into a small apartment with her 16-member family after authorities shut down a camp hosting internally displaced people.

"I can't go back because of security concerns," Ms Khalid, the wife of an ISIS militant, told The National over the phone from the northern city of Mosul.

“I can’t put my kids and the rest of my family in such risk.”

Last month, the Iraqi government began a campaign to close down camps erected for millions of internally displaced people (IDPs) since mid-2014 when ISIS swept through the country’s north and west.

Non-governmental organisations have criticised the move as hasty and warned that it could expose families to danger or pile on hardship amid the coronavirus pandemic and onset of winter.

More than 3.5 million people were displaced after the 2014 ISIS onslaught and the more than three years fight that followed, according to the International Organisation for Migration. That number has reduced to nearly 1.3 million now as the majority of them returned home after ISIS was driven out, according to IOM data.

The government has to offer accommodation for those who can't stay in their homes and can't rent properties

Ms Khalid was among those who chose to stay at Hamam Al Alil camp to the south of Mosul.

Her husband disappeared during the more than three-year fight to defeat ISIS.

Inside the camp, she had access to health services, food and education. To make ends meet, she worked as a volunteer inside the camp for 250,000 Iraqi dinar a month (about $200).

As news of relocating IDPs surfaced, residents of Qayyarah city to the east of Mosul, where Ms Khalid used to live, vowed to take revenge on returning ISIS families.

“There were threats on Facebook, warning us from returning to our home town,” said Ms Khalid who said her house has now been confiscated by the Sunni leader of a government-sanctioned militia.

“When they notified us, I asked the mayor that I just want my house back so that I can rent it in order to live in another safe area, but they refused,” she added.

As time was running short, she had to borrow money to rent a small floor in a house inside Mosul for her extended family for 125,000 Iraqi dinar ($100) per month.

“We have been here since Thursday, there’s no water and no more than five hours of electricity during the day,” the 38-year old mother of five said.

She is now hunting for any job to feed her family.

The latest drive by the government has faced criticism from the UN and NGOs.

In a briefing in Geneva on Friday, the spokesman of the UN High Commission for Refugees, Babar Baloch said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was ramping up support “in an effort to mitigate some of the [move] adverse effects,” of so many camps closing.

Mr Baloch painted a chaotic picture of the situation.

“Government information about camp closures and timelines have changed rapidly, creating uncertainty for many IDP families,” he said.

“Many have objected to leaving camps now over concerns about conditions and destruction, tensions and insecurity in the areas of return. Some IDPs say they were given only two-days’ notice to leave their shelters,” he added.

UNHCR has shared its concerns with the government, stressing that some of the closures have been conducted without adequate notice and consultation with IDP representatives and aid agencies working in the camps, he said.

But the government has defended the move.

"We gave them notice to leave and all of them left voluntarily; none was forced to leave," Deputy Minister of Migration and Displacement, Karim Al Nouri, told The National.

“We helped some of them to solve their problems in their areas in co-operation with the tribes, while those who can't return to their homes can move to another camp,” Mr Al Nouri added, saying the government plans to end the process by the end of this year.

One of the reasons for the closure, he continued, is to “prevent manipulating their votes in the coming national elections” suggested to be held in June next year.

In 2018 national elections, displaced people voted from their camps for candidates in their areas, but the vote was marred by allegations of fraud, prompting authorities to cancel some of the ballots.

Since late October, 15 camps have been closed in different areas, while seven others will be closed in the coming weeks, according to the Ministry’s spokesman, Ali Abbas.

Twenty-six other camps in the northern Kurdish region hosting mainly Yazidis will remain open, Mr Abbas added.

Many IDPs have returned to obliterated homes

About 90 per cent of Mohammed Al Essa’s house in Al Baaj town, located south west of Mosul, was demolished in the fight to chase out ISIS from the area, leaving only one room to use. He fled the town in 2015.

To accommodate his family, he is using a small mud house which belonged to a neighbour. The hut is in poor condition; rainwater poured into the property a few days ago, forcing him to bodge a repair using plastic sheets.

“I have no objection to leaving the camp, but the government has to offer accommodation for those who can’t stay in their homes and can’t rent properties,” Mr Al Essa said.

“We have no problem with the security situation here, but there are no adequate services … we have no health services, we have to buy drinkable water while we have no more than 12 hours of electricity a day,” the 31-year old father of seven added.

"For emergencies in case the mud house collapses, I brought with me a tent from the camp and erected it inside my demolished house," he added.