Although three years have passed since the end of the war against Da’esh and the liberation of areas of Iraq formerly under the group’s control, political interference has prevented the return of more than one million displaced citizens – primarily Sunni, Yazidi, and Christian Arabs – who fled their homes in response to the destruction caused by military operations.
In this article, we will discuss the real causes preventing the return of these populations, identify who benefits from the existence of refugee camps and from opportunities to exploit the crisis in affected cities, and examine the efforts made thus far by Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government to resolve the situation.
According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, some 6 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes during the war against Da’esh between 2014 and 2017, of whom 1.5 million are still displaced. In a televised statement on July 14, 2020, Jassim Al-Attiyah, Undersecretary of the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement, confirmed that, according to the Ministry’s latest census, there were more than one million displaced Iraqis, most of whom were living in camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are currently 6 camps in southern Mosul, 17 in Dahuk, 6 in Erbil, 4 in Al-Sulaimaniya, 2 in Kirkuk, 3 in Diyala, 27 in Al-Anbar, 2 in Baghdad, 1 in Salah al-Din, and 1 in Karbala.
In a report entitled “Life after ISIS: New challenges for Christianity in Iraq”, Christian international organization Aid to the Church in Need states that, in 2019, the number of Christians who migrated from their hometowns on the Nineveh Plains of Iraq far outstripped the number who returned. The report warns that the Christian population in the region may drop by as much as 80% over the next four years as a result of migration, down to only 23,000 individuals, and that 55% of Iraqi Christians surveyed expected to leave the country by 2024.
According to the United Nations, around 350,000 Yazidis have been displaced from the Sinjar region of Nineveh. Around 100,000 have since returned, but they lack access to health care, education, clean water, and security.
There are also around one million displaced Sunnis in Iraq, who represent the majority of the displaced population. They either live camps in the Kurdistan region for security and economic reasons, or they have been able to rent or purchase new homes in Baghdad or Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Sunni families have decided to settle permanently in the capital, and have integrated into Sunni or mixed neighborhoods. This has led to a relative demographic shift, as the population of Sunni provinces has decreased and the population of Baghdad has increased.
Shia militias are refusing to allow displaced persons to return to some cities in Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Al-Anbar. Kurdish forces have also begun to tighten their grip on a Sunni group accused of sympathizing with Da’esh; in reality, however, this group had simply sought refuge in Mosul, the center of Nineveh Governorate, as Da’esh began to sweep through the province, and after the end of the military liberation in 2017 they had relocated to cities in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Human Rights Watch, while the Kurdistan regional government has prevented around 4,200 displaced Sunni Arabs from returning to their homes in 12 villages in Al-Hamdaniyah district, east of Mosul, despite the area having been liberated from Da’esh control three years ago, Kurds and Arabs loyal to the regional government have been allowed to return to their villages following the battle to liberate Mosul. Despite denials by the regional government, Human Rights Watch has confirmed the veracity of this information in subsequent reports, in which it states that such villagers are being punished unlawfully.
Reasons for preventing the return of displaced populations
Despite the promises made by successive governments, displaced Iraqis have been prevented from returning to their homes for a number of reasons:
Nineveh Plains crisis
Many Christians have chosen not to return to liberated areas on the Nineveh Plains owing to concerns regarding the dominance of armed Shia factions in the region and their attempts to seize territory in the region and bring about demographic change, to the benefit of other national Shia minorities, such as the Shabak and the Shia Turkmen. Displaced Sunnis from the region have also been prevented from returning to their hometowns, and many have had their property and lands seized. Shia militias have even called for Sunni mosques and shrines in the region to be consecrated as Shia sites.
According to Dindar Zebari, chair of the Supreme Committee for Follow-up and Response to International Reports in the Kurdistan regional government, although the regional government has provided all facilities to allow displaced populations to return to and reconstruct their hometowns, armed factions have prevented them from doing so. He cites the main causes of instability in the disputed regions as being the actions of the armed factions, the presence of Da’esh sleeper cells, the existence of clandestine prisons, the seizure of lands owned by displaced persons, and the burning of homes and property to prevent their return.
Around two months ago, the Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars accused the Iraqi intelligence services and the Shabak Militia of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of committing “widespread and systematic human rights violations in prisons in Nineveh Governorate”. The Association added that: “The Shabak Militia is carrying out unjust, sectarian practices, including forcing individuals to pay large sums to the group in order to be allowed to dispose of their property or perform their work, and tampering with property deeds in conspiracy with officials employed at the real estate registry.”
Furthermore, the Nineveh Plains are in a strategically important location along the Iraq–Syria border. They serve as a key transit route for Iran, which is supplying the Assad regime in Syria with fighters and weapons. Abu Jaafar al-Shabaki, leader of the PMF in the north, has therefore been tasked with maintaining the current status quo in the Nineveh Plains, preventing the return of displaced families and of political parties active in the area before the arrival of Da’esh in 2014, and covering up Iranian activity in the region. The PMF also controls the overland trade route between Erbil and the rest of Nineveh Governorate, and exercises levies and taxes on food deliveries and consumer goods.
The late security expert Hisham al-Hashemi reported that PMF factions in Nineveh were smuggling oil and had reached agreements with the former governor, Nawfal al-Akoub, who was supported by the PMF and who had allowed PMF factions access to the governorate’s economy in exchange for the support of former PMF deputy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Al-Hashemi reported that: “Al-Akoub provided the PMF with one of its key footholds in Nineveh. He took part in operations to liberate Nineveh city from Da’esh, and helped the PMF establish 60 economic offices in the city under the pretext of protecting the Shia minority.”
Conflict in Sinjar
The return of the displaced population of Mount Sinjar, the home of most Yazidis, has been further complicated by the extreme lack of services and the widespread destruction of homes and government buildings. According to the central government, however, families are returning to the area; on July 15, the Iraqi Minister of Migration and Displacement, Ivan Faiek, issued a statement in which she confirmed that: “In coordination with the security authorities responsible for protecting the camps in Bagdkandal, Qadiya, Persvi, and Dakar in Dohuk Governorate (in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq), we returned 5,700 displaced persons to their homes in Sinjar between April 15 and June 15.” However, the mayor of Sinjar, Mahma Khalil, states that, since the region was liberated from Da’esh control, only 21% of the displaced population has returned, owing to continued security concerns caused by the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish opposition, and the repeated Turkish bombings of the Sinjar region, which borders Syria. The Yazidi minority also has little confidence in the forces currently controlling the city, and is worried that extremists may reenter the region across the Syrian border in the absence of an Iraqi government presence, with the exception of some PMF factions in the south and west of the region and Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the north.
Many Yazidi families are therefore reluctant to return to Sinjar without sufficient guarantees from the government that it will work to swiftly restore services and rebuild the region’s cities. Observers believe that the government’s failure to solve the PKK problem and to distance itself from PMF forces in the north has served Iran’s aims, which sees the PKK as a means of sustaining tensions in Iraq–Turkey relations, and is using the PMF to secure land routes between Iran and Syria.
Sunni political forces agreed to support Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government in exchange for a list of demands and conditions, including an end to displacement and the reconstruction of liberated cities. In May 2020, al-Kadhimi announced a government program in which he promised to rebuild liberated cities in order to facilitate the return of displaced populations. He has since taken a number of steps in that regard:
These government measures, while serious, are progressing slowly, owing to the power and the enormous level of Iranian support enjoyed by the militias and the political parties loyal to them, the lack of political support for al-Kadhimi’s government from any political bloc or party, and the decline in the country’s revenues.
There are many political, economic, and security factors preventing the return of displaced populations within Iraq. Despite their expressions of concern at the situation, Sunni political parties have failed to fulfil their promises to return displaced persons to their homes and rebuild destroyed cities. This failure will affect them most severely during the next general elections, as displaced Sunni voters will likely be unable to vote; even if possible, their vote will largely be influenced by armed groups and by the difficult circumstances of camp life. Voters in liberated cities will also be affected by the lack of services and the slow rate of reconstruction, and will likely compare the promises made by the political blocs against the bitter reality of the situation. New Sunni political currents will therefore have a significant opportunity to gain the upper hand in these cities.
Meanwhile, not satisfied with merely preventing the return of displaced populations in some areas, Shia militias are now attempting to displace thousands of residents from other areas. In July 2020, these militias turned their attention to Al-Tarmiyah region, north of Baghdad, attempting to depict it as a security-lax Da’esh hotspot in the hope of repeating the success that they achieved in Jurf al-Sakhr, which they have successfully turned into a large camp for PMF militias, and where all subsequent efforts by the government and Sunni political parties to return the displaced population to their homes have failed.
Prime Minister al-Kadhimi needs to put an end to displacement in Iraq, or at the very least secure the vote of displaced populations before the early elections scheduled for June 6, 2021. He will also need to ensure that the PMF militias are kept away from Sunni and Christian cities, otherwise the electoral fraud rate will likely be as high as it was during the 2018 elections.
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