Iraq Closes 20 Refugee Camps, Saying People Are Going Home

Syrian refugees fleeing the Turkish incursion in Northern Syria wait to receive aid from the UNHCR, local Kurdish non-profit, BCF (Barzani Charity Foundation) and other International NGOs as more than 200 arrive at the facility on October 17, 2019 in Dohuk, Iraq. More than 1000 refugees have arrived in Northern …
Byron Smith/Getty Images

The government of Iraq announced the shutdown of 20 refugee and internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps in western Anbar province this weekend, stating that people no longer need them as they are returning home.

According to Kurdistan 24, which operates out of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, the move leaves only two refugee camps open of the 70 that once operated in Anbar. Many of the thousands displaced are Iraqi citizens native to areas once conquered by the Islamic State, though given Anbar’s proximity to Syria, many are also refugees fleeing that nation’s civil war. At the height of the Islamic State’s attempt to establish a sovereign “caliphate” headquartered in Raqqa, Syria, Anbar’s displaced camps reportedly held 70,000 people.

Iraq’s Minister of Displacement and Migration, Ivan Faeq Jabro, reportedly said at a press conference this weekend that Baghdad would not be forcing anyone to return home, but that the remaining residents at the closing camps would be relocated to the two remaining camps. Baghdad officials reportedly emphasized that the displaced living in these camps were leaving, not being ousted.

Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration also places importance on ensuring that foreign countries do not forcibly repatriate Iraqis, nominally to respect the human rights of those Iraqi citizens. The policy ensures also, however, that Baghdad does not have to be responsible for the safety of those individuals. In February, for example, the Ministry published a statement following a meeting with the Dutch ambassador to Baghdad emphasizing that no Iraqi should be deported from the Netherlands.

“The Minister of Displacement and Migration … stressed the need for the return [of] Iraqis in the Netherlands and other countries to be voluntary and not forced,” the statement read, “stressing … the need to find appropriate solutions and ways to secure the voluntary return of the rejected Iraqis Asylum requests.”

While Iraq has rarely been an attractive relocation target for refugees, it endures a significant crisis of internally displaced people. According to the United Nations, nearly one in five Iraqis is internally displaced, representing over 6.5 million people. Of those, 360,000 people are living in “informal settlements,” not including refugee camps. The U.N. describes those settlements as including “unfinished and abandoned buildings.”

Despite Baghdad’s assertions that the displaced are choosing to return home, reports from the country have persistently revealed evidence of Iraqi officials moving displaced people out of camps. In a report in March, the human rights magazine The New Humanitarian accused Iraq of “pushing residents of camps across northern Iraq to go back.” The report cited statistics from the Norwegian Refugee Council concluding that as many as 186,000 people had been forced out of camps throughout 2019.

The report noted elsewhere, however, that “nearly 4.6 million people have gone home across the country.”

It is unclear how many of those millions who returned home found somewhere to stay. Reports from the past two years indicate that, while many refugees did leave the camps voluntarily, they came home to find unlivable habitats and resorted to returning to the camps. According to a Voice of America report from 2018, the number of Iraqis returning to camps was in the “hundreds” as they found no buildings or infrastructure in their hometowns. A year later, Reuters reported that, “despairing of the corpses and debris littering the streets, many Iraqis have left their homes in areas liberated from Islamic State two years ago and voluntarily returned to the displacement camps that housed them.”

The Anbar camps have struggled to ensure in the chaotic aftermath of the demise of ISIS that those seeking refuge in the displacement camps are truly civilians and not ISIS jihadis. A sheikh in charge of a local Anbar group, identified as “Sheikh Abdulwahab Sarhan al-Dulaimi, told the Saudi newspaper al-Arabiya in May that locals have evidence that the wives and children of deceased Islamic State jihadis are infiltrating the Anbar camps.

“We need to separate families of ISIS criminals from the victim families, to avoid friction and confrontation between them,” al-Dulaimi is quoted as saying. “This is to protect [ISIS suspects’ families] their lives and to prevent revenge acts.”

Local Anbar law enforcement officials dismissed the concern in comments to al-Arabiya.

Outside of Anbar province, much of the displacement crisis is occurring on the other side of the country in the KRG. The Kurdish government, run out of the northern regional capital of Erbil, hosts large camps of refugees, many of them ethnic and religious minorities targeted by the Islamic State, like Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis. Many are former residents of Mosul, once the second-largest city in Iraq before becoming the ISIS regional capital in the country. ISIS reduced much of Mosul to rubble, leaving it largely uninhabitable. Iraq “liberated” Mosul from the Islamic State in 2017.

“In Mosul alone, 138,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, either by IS or the fight against the extremist group. Many homes have not been rebuilt since the city was liberated by Iraqi forces in July 2017, and renting or buying new property is often prohibitively expensive,” The New Humanitarian reported.

Many of those identified in the 2018 Voice of America report as returning to the camps are northern Iraqis from Kurdish areas.

Those returns have led to reports from human rights organizations accusing Baghdad of forcing citizens to return to uninhabitable villages and towns. In its article on the Anbar camps closing this weekend, Kurdistan 24 noted that both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Iraqi government of ousting displaced people from government camps.

The KRG, which is autonomous but not sovereign, has also criticized Baghdad for offering insufficient support for the refugee camps in Kurdistan at a time in which Baghdad-controlled camps are shutting down. On Saturday – “International Refugee Day” – the head of the KRG Joint Crisis Coordination Center (JCC) Hoshang Mohammed told the Kurdish news agency Rudaw that Iraq was contributing little to protecting the large refugee populations in the region.

“The vast majority of this spending is covered by the KRG itself and the remaining 25 percent is covered by the UN and other agencies and five percent is covered by international donors,” Mohammed said. “According to our studies, from 2014 to 2020, the total cost of the IDPs has been more than seven billion dollars earmarked by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Iraqi government has only contributed a budget of 184 billion dinars [$154 million],” he said.

Speaking to another Kurdish outlet, Bas News, on Tuesday, Mohammed lamented that “the Iraqi government and the United Nations used to well assist these refugees and IDPs in the past, but they have decreased their fundings since the spread of the new coronavirus.”

The KRG is expecting a new influx of refugees this week following the announcement of an invasion of northern Iraq last week by the government of Turkey, which has reportedly already led to the evacuation of as many as 90 villages in Christian and Yazidi areas.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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