Iraqi officials have stepped up efforts to evict tens of thousands of people with perceived links to Islamist militants Isis from sprawling camps that military officials warn could become breeding grounds for extremism.
Although Baghdad declared victory over the Sunni jihadis three years ago, there are more than a quarter of a million displaced Iraqis still living in camps across federal Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Last month, Baghdad decided to shut all camps in federal Iraq, prompting warnings from charities about a lack of support for the around 60,000 people who are set to leave the tented settlements by the end of the year.
The closures are part of Iraq’s struggle to tackle the toxic legacy of Isis, which sought to build an Islamic state that straddled Iraq and Syria, and are partly motivated by fears Isis’ extremist ideology could fester in the camps. The transitional government wants to act now before elections slated for next year force it out of office, analysts say.
“The prime minister [Mustafa al-Kadhimi] and this government have been very much aware of the risks that come with prolonged displacement,” said Lahib Higel, senior Iraq analyst at Crisis Group. “Children are really vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups.”
Most of Iraq’s displaced people are in the northern Kurdistan region. Unlike Baghdad, the Erbil administration has not decided to close camps, according to Hoshang Mohamed Abdulrahman, director-general of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Joint Crisis Co-ordination Centre.
The US Central Command chief has warned that there could be “generational implications” if camp residents never reintegrate into society.
“[W]e are buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road when these children grow up radicalised,” Gen. Frank McKenzie told the National Council on US-Arab Relations. “If we don’t address this now, we’re never really going to defeat Isis.” US troops formed the bulk of the international coalition to help local forces combat Isis.
Karim al-Nouri, representative for Iraq’s migration and displacement ministry said that the government had acted out of humanitarian concerns, and because “the existence of camps after 2020 is wrong”.
But aid workers have criticised the federal government for botching camp closures in the middle of a pandemic and at winter’s onset. Some 57 per cent of people said they did not leave the camps voluntarily, according to a survey conducted by humanitarian organisations. Mr Nouri claimed returns were “voluntary and not coerced”.
Human rights group Amnesty International accused Baghdad of leaving the evicted people “at risk of ending up in precarious shelters or being forced to return to their areas of origin despite safety fears”.
In some areas, militias have allegedly moved into liberated areas and prevented former residents from returning. Returning people seen as affiliated with Isis may face victims’ families eager for revenge, while minority groups like the Yazidis, persecuted by Isis, fear the return of potential sympathisers.
“There are certainly areas where security actors on the ground or local communities have not bought into the idea of accepting back families,” said Belkis Wille, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
One 25-year-old, who asked not to be named, had spent four years in a camp before this month being given one week’s notice to leave. The hairdresser and her family returned to their hometown, but found their house was bombed and is still uninhabitable.
“They forced us to leave, [the camp]” she said, adding that they had received no financial help but were renting. “Those who don’t have houses, where are they expected to go?” Her male relatives have not found work.
However, some analysts argue that the government has limited time to act. Mr Kadhimi’s administration, formed after a vicious security crackdown on mass demonstrations felled the previous government early this year, has pledged fresh elections as early as June.
“The aim [of the camp closures] is right, but the execution has been poor,” said Ms Higel. “There’s a question as well for this government in terms of how long they’re in power to actually be able to implement this”.