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Iraq: Looming Camp Closures in Kurdistan

Human RightsIraq: Looming Camp Closures in Kurdistan

(Beirut) – The planned closure of displaced people’s camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) by a July 30 deadline will imperil the rights of many camp residents from the northern Sinjar district, Human Rights Watch said today.

Sinjar remains unsafe and lacks adequate social services to ensure the economic, social, and cultural rights of thousands of displaced people who may soon be forced to return. The 23 camps across the KRI currently host about 157,000 people many of whom are from Sinjar, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Interior Ministry.

“Many Sinjaris have been living in camps since 2014 and they deserve to be able to go home, but returns need to be safe and voluntary,” said Sarah Sanbar, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Given the lack of services, infrastructure, and safety in the district, the government risks making an already bad situation worse.”

Sinjar, a mountainous district in northwestern Iraq, is home to a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, and Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority. Eighty percent of public infrastructure and 70 percent of homes in Sinjar town, the largest city in the district, were destroyed during the conflict against the extremist armed group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) between 2014 and 2017. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about 183,000 people from Sinjar remain displaced, including 85 percent of the district’s Yazidi population. At present, 65 percent of towns and villages in Sinjar host half or less than half of their original populations, and 13 towns and villages have not recorded any returns at all since 2014.

The Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement announced the July 30 deadline on January 24. To encourage returns, the Ministry also announced a package of aid and incentives for returnees, including a one-time payment of 4 million Iraqi dinars (about US$3,000) per family, some government jobs, social security benefits, and interest-free small business loans.

On March 19, a delegation from the Prime Minister’s Office visited Chamishko camp in Dohuk. “They outlined three options for IDPs: to return to Sinjar, to relocate to other cities under federal control, or to remain in the KRI but outside the camps,” a teacher and resident of the camp who attended a meeting with the delegation told Human Rights Watch. “But the government should provide compensation for us to rebuild our homes and offer services before expecting us to return.”

Human Rights Watch found in a 2023 report that the main barriers to Sinjaris’ return were the government’s failure to provide compensation for the loss of their property and livelihoods, delayed reconstruction, an unstable security situation, and lack of justice and accountability for crimes and abuses against them.

In May 2023, Human Rights Watch found that not a single person from Sinjar had received financial compensation for the loss of their property and livelihoods as required under Law No. 20 of 2009, with 3,500 approved claims awaiting payment by the Ninewa Finance Department. By February 2024 the number of completed claims had risen to 8,300, and still not a single person had received any payment, Judge Ammar Mohammed, head of the Tel Afar Compensation Committee, which oversees the Sinjar Compensation Sub-Office, told Human Rights Watch.

Over the last months, multiple government officials have told a Human Rights Watch researcher that the funds for compensation payments for Sinjaris would be released soon, with one stating “as soon as next week,” and that reconstruction projects were imminently scheduled to break ground. But a year on, there have been few improvements.

Two government officials told Human Rights Watch that the delays in compensation payments were a result of “budgetary issues” that prevented disbursement of the earmarked funds, without providing any further detail.

Dr. Dilshad Ali, head of the Sinjar General Hospital, told Human Rights Watch on April 4 that the hospital remains damaged and abandoned, with medical staff still operating out of a location that was meant for temporary use. “We are waiting for the reconstruction project to be forwarded to an executive entity in order to start the rebuilding process,” he said. “Chain of Hope NGO is building an extension of 27 beds at the temporary location to give us more capacity, which is almost done. But it won’t be enough, especially if more people return.”

Many Sinjaris have been living in camps since 2014 and they deserve to be able to go home, but returns need to be safe and voluntary. Given the lack of services, infrastructure, and safety in the district, the government risks making an already bad situation worse.

Iraq Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Dr. Ali said one primary health center in Gohbal village, north of Mount Sinjar, had been rebuilt and was now operational.

An employee in the Ninewa Education Department told Human Rights Watch on May 2 that four of the 24 schools damaged or destroyed during military operations had been rebuilt and were soon to reopen. However, he said only 86 schools are currently operational out of the 206 that existed before 2014, and that they are overcrowded and facing a teacher shortage. Parents interviewed said they pay 5,000 Iraqi dinars (about US$3.82) per child per semester so schools can hire teachers, in a country where free public education is required.

“I told the Prime Minister during his last visit that we need to build at least 100 schools if the IDPs return, because there are 100 schools in the camps” the employee said.

The employee said that two schools in Khanasour village are being occupied by armed groups, one by the police and the other by the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), a Yazidi-led militia with perceived links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). A third school was occupied by the Iraqi Security Forces until the end of 2023, when they returned it to the Education Department.

Only one of the 14 displaced people from Sinjar whom Human Rights Watch interviewed in March 2023, Khalil Hasan, has returned home. “Returning to Sinjar in July 2023 was a decision rooted in my personal well-being, as I felt the camp life was no longer sustainable,” Hasan said. “Governmental support for our return was nonexistent. My primary drive was to reclaim my homeland and rebuild my life independently.”

The others, like Abdo Alo, are still living in the camps. “I am still in Khanke camp,” he said. “Several factors, such as the absence of essential services, security concerns, and the devastation of my home, have prevented my return.” He expressed concern about an uncertain future as the date of camp closure looms near, and the prospect of being forced to return to Sinjar without anywhere else to go.

International human rights law and the Iraqi constitution guarantee citizens’ rights to health, education, housing, and an adequate standard of living. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement say that competent authorities should provide compensation or other appropriate forms of compensation to displaced people when recovery of their property is not an option. The Guiding Principles also require authorities to provide them with basic shelter and housing.

“Nobody wants to live in an IDP camp forever, but closing these camps when home isn’t safe is not a sustainable solution to displacement,” Sanbar said. “The funds to rebuild Sinjar are there; the government needs to disperse them so that Sinjaris can return and rebuild their lives.”

Story from www.hrw.org

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity.

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