Despite the prevailing peace in Iraq’s Sunni-populated provinces today, the thousands of refugees who fled their towns and cities following the Islamic State (IS) group’s rise in 2014 are still hesitant to return home.
Those who have done so have often been rejected by locals who fear the returnees may still have connections with the terror group.
Nearly five years after IS, better known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, was ousted from territory it had seized in Iraq, the country still faces difficulties in enabling thousands of refugees to return voluntarily and safely and to rebuild their homes in war-torn areas.
Yet, there has been a contradictory blend of hope, goodwill, suspicion and fear around these areas involving those who managed to survive living under IS and those who were forced to leave by the militants.
Iraqi Iran-backed Shia militias that helped to defeat the group and remain in the regions are also entangled in the crisis amid accusations that they have been involved in horrific violations, including unlawful detentions and sectarian demographic changes.
Hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes during the conflict that started in 2014 when IS captured vast areas of northern and western Iraq and imposed its rule. It ended in 2017 with the terror group’s defeat by Iraqi forces backed by the US-led International Coalition.
Communal mistrust is now blocking the Iraqi government from implementing a 2020 plan to close the displacement camps as part of a UN-backed programme of “safe and voluntary return” for those who were displaced by the war.
Iraq’s Migration and Displacement Ministry, which is in charge of the plan, has already closed 16 camps over the last seven months, leaving tens of thousands of displaced people without the assurance that they can return home safely and start restoring their destroyed homes and find affordable services.
Today, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is under fire for closing the displacement camps. Critics say its strategy is badly coordinated and premature, while much former IS territory lies in ruins or under the control of groups hostile to those returning.
Despite the government’s stated aim of having displaced people return home, those who were forced to leave after their camps where shut have been complaining that their houses have been destroyed and that they cannot afford to rebuild them.
Since the ouster of IS, the task of rebuilding the liberated towns and cities in Iraq has been painfully slow. The delays have been caused by a lack of funds and of a coherent strategy for reconstruction and societal reconciliation.
Some of the returnees have been saying that they are living in tents, the houses of relatives, or in rented places in other cities. Many claim that they have been struggling to provide their families with adequate food, water, electricity and healthcare.
A major obstacle to getting back to normal in these cities is that many of the displaced families are being labelled as IS-affiliated by the authorities and their communities, accusations human-rights groups say are “without foundation.”
The US group Human Rights Watch says administrative hurdles are also preventing families with perceived IS links from getting documents, including identity cards, birth certificates and ration stamps, needed to get access to welfare benefits and public services.
Enforced disappearances are another problem for peaceful return, and many families are losing hope that relatives rounded up during the conflict will ever be seen again.
The international rights group Amnesty International last week urged Iraq to reveal the whereabouts of 643 Sunni Muslim boys and men abducted five years ago by Shia paramilitaries fighting the militants.
The group said the men and teenagers had disappeared during an operation by the Iraqi Popular Mobalisation Force (PMF) in June 2016 to retake the city of Fallujah in Iraq’s western desert from IS.
In some areas, such as Jurf Al-Sakhar about 60 km southwest of Baghdad, displaced Sunni residents have been barred from returning to their homes after the town was retaken from IS early in the war.
Sunni residents say that Shia militia leaders are creating a parallel state that undermines Iraq’s central government and revives the Sunni grievances that underpinned the dramatic rise of IS in 2014.
Some Shia militia leaders have called on the government to relocate civilians in Sunni areas north of Baghdad and in Diyalah to deprive IS militants of local support in areas that have been a hotbed of recent terror activity.
Meanwhile, the return of dozens of Iraqi families suspected of links to IS from Syria has sparked fears among residents who survived the horrors of the terrorist group’s rule.
Around 90 families have been repatriated from the Kurdish-run Al-Hol Camp to Ghayyarah south of Mosul under an agreement between Baghdad and the Coalition battling IS.
But the move has stirred up nightmares for many Mosul residents, who eye those to be transferred as a threat to the local community. Further transfers of families detained in Syria have been delayed after increasing objections from locals still suffering from nearly two years of IS rule in their province.
The Iraqi authorities’ plans to move families displaced by the war against IS have underscored the larger challenge of dealing with displacement in the years after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the fall of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraq has witnessed a wide variety of forced displacement that has driven large groups of people to seek shelter or refuge inside and outside the country. Successive governments in Iraq have failed to address the root causes of the problem, which has been boding ill for the country’s future.
In many cases the gap created by displacements, relocations and exodus has triggered demographic shifts and sectarian imbalances, creating pressure on both the social and physical infrastructure in many Iraqi provinces.
While significant numbers of internally displaced persons remain in limbo, millions of Iraqis have fled sectarian violence and political instability to urban centres across the region or have been seeking refuge in the US and Europe.
Iraq’s religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, have been badly affected by the crisis. Thousands of Christian families have not been able to return to their homes in Mosul and its surroundings, fearing IS’s resurgence or the presence of pro-Iran paramilitary groups.
Thousands of members of the country’s Yazidi minority have been left homeless after a massive fire last week, said to have been caused by a short circuit, destroyed a displacement camp for members of the community who had fled persecution at the hands of IS.
The fire destroyed the Sharya Camp in Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, adding a new trauma to survivors who fled the militant onslaught seven years ago.
Even after a government pledge to help them return to their towns and villages, many Yazidis say that they still feel unsafe doing so and that the authorities have not addressed the political, security and economic concerns that have kept them away.
With the increasing political instability, the threats from IS, including turning a once-liberated area into a new stronghold for the group, remain. While the displacements and relocations have been polarising in terms of relations between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities, they have also been fuelling the inter-Sunni power struggle in Iraq.
The status quo is not working, and in order to establish the long term communal peace that will enable the displaced persons and refugees to return to a life free from human rights abuses, Iraq needs more than its current patchwork of policies to deal with a crisis that so far has had many tragic consequences.
This also underlines the need for a comprehensive national plan that will take a macro view of these challenges to manage reconstruction, rehabilitation and societal reconciliation and constitute the backbone of policies to deal with population reintegration in the post-IS period in Iraq.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly