More than three years after the victory over ISIS, over 1.2 million people are still displaced in Iraq, with around 240,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) living in camps according to IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix.
Those still in camps face significant barriers to return, including houses that are partially or completely destroyed or contaminated with unexploded ordnance, reduced access to critical basic services in areas of return -including water and healthcare – lack of livelihoods and threats to their security due to perceived affiliation with ISIS or tribal disputes.
Following a statement in October this year, the Government of Iraq started closing camps across the country.
Over 27,000 people have left from the 10 camps closed so far. Already vulnerable families are being forced to return to areas where there is severely limited access to critical basic services, including electricity, water, healthcare and food.
Unable to access shelter, many families have been forced into informal settlements, living in tents, crowded shelters or damaged buildings in winter, during a global pandemic.
Ahmed is 45 years old, from a small village in Ninewa, northern Iraq. He was forced to leave his home with his two wives and their 10 children after ISIS invaded their village in 2014.
“When ISIS came and the war began, we were forced to go to Mosul. We stayed in Mosul for three years and when the Iraqi army arrived, ISIS prevented any family from leaving. I saw with my own eyes, two families who tried to escape from Mosul and ISIS killed them all, the whole family in front of us. We tried to escape from Mosul at night, but they saw us and shot at us from a distance. We were forced to return to our home and stay in Mosul during the war with bombs falling on us. After the army of Iraq arrived, they took us to Hammam Al Alil camp.”
Ahmed and his family stayed in the camp for more than two years. When the government announced the closure of the camp in November 2020, Ahmed had to leave with his family and returned home to find his house completely destroyed:
“We started to return by buses and cars. The cars did not bring us all the way to our village but to a town nearby. We arrived at 10 pm and they left us with our materials by the side of the road, then we had to pay for cars to transport our materials to the village. When we returned it was the first time that I saw my house had been destroyed. It was heart-breaking.”
Forced to leave the camp, and unable to live in his home, Ahmed set up a tent next to his destroyed house, where the ground is still littered with bullets from the conflict with ISIS. He is now living there with his wives and children, one of whom has a severe learning disability and another with congenital heart disease.
“We need everything. We have nothing here apart from the materials that we brought from the camp. We have no house; we are just sitting on the ground. We don’t even have water or bread or clothes for our children. We depend on people bringing us bread to feed our families. My son and daughter are both sick and need medical care. Shelter is the most important thing. Our village is in a valley, so in winter when it rains this area will flood and we only have tents for shelter. We are very scared.
At night we sleep at the house of our neighbours because when it rains, the tent floods. We are 43 people living in just two rooms, there is not enough space. Some of us sleep outside and it’s cold. If you come at night you will see, it looks like a hospital – everyone sleeping in every place.”
As camps close rapidly, and with little notice given to families, many are unable to return home at all – 45% of those surveyed by IOM found that they were unable to return to their area of origin, let alone their own homes. After years of displacement, these families are now being forced into secondary or even tertiary displacement.
Danish Refugee Council teams are on the ground, providing critical life-saving aid to those affected by the camp closure, including transitional shelters and sealing off kits for those living in tents.
Protection teams are working with other actors to continually monitor and assess the situation and DRC legal staff are helping IDPs access civil documentation, ensuring that they can access governmental support and that children can continue to go to school.
However, as camp closures continue and winter approaches, the lives of around 240,000 IDPs still in camps as well as the 27,000 who have already left, are at immediate risk.
IDPs living in tents and damaged shelters without critical basic services need urgent support, and coordination between humanitarian actors and the Government of Iraq is needed to protect vulnerable families still in camps.
It is vital that humanitarian actors, together with the Government of Iraq, act now to protect vulnerable families who are at immediate risk.