An underreported crisis?
The past decade has witnessed mass displacement of refugees. Caught in the midst of a crisis and forced to leave their home, they are now struggling to find safety and security elsewhere. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan in August 2021 is one of the crises only worsening this global emergency. Media outlets are covering immigration policy changes, public demonstrations, and personal cases in countries such as the UK, USA, and Germany. However, one refugee crisis is receiving less attention: in Iraq, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) are wanting to return to their own homes as the government closes IDP camps and encourages resettlement. For many IDPs, this poses a difficult task, as the once-opened doors to their home towns have been closed shut by their own community members.
The ties that bind
During the Iraq war against the terrorist group inappropriately calling itelf the Islamic State more than 6 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes. And even today, a staggering 1.3 million people remain displaced. This includes people living both within Iraqi borders as well as just across in eastern Syria. While Western media outlets are mainly devoted to stories of radicalized individuals leaving their families to join Daesh and fight for their cause, there is one question that is all too often underexposed: what happens to the family members of those individuals? This is particularly important in Iraq, where familial associations play a significant role in social standing and community relations. During the aftermath of war, it is those associations that create a powerful stigma and discriminate against family members, mostly women and children, of converted Daesh jihadists. Even though these family members may have no actual ties with Daesh themselves, perceived ties are creating a secondary crisis for many individuals. Despite clear signs that the Iraqi crisis is not over yet, the Iraqi government continues to shut down its IDP camps, a move which typically denotes a return to stabilization and peace in a country.
People with perceived Daesh ties have often been subject to additional scrutiny by various governments, sometimes suffering injustices such as arbitrary detention, unfair trials and disappearance. This is on top of the trauma caused by the victimization from Daesh members during the group’s violent struggle for power across Iraq. In many communities such as those in the western Anbar region, people fled in waves. Those who stayed the longest, are now being perceived to be Daesh sympathizers and are being rejected by their home communities. On top of their chances of returning home slowly being shattered, some of the IDPs also become victims of acts that go beyond the verbal. There are, for example, several reports of retaliatory violence by Daesh victims, including sexual and gender-based violence against women, and disruption of social peace via protests. Just as problematic, there can be damage to property, exclusion from public services, and a lack of job opportunities. Some families with perceived Daesh ties have expressed fears of improvised explosive devices being placed in their home area. Others have been unjustly punished for crimes allegedly committed by their family members. And some local authorities have been accused of withholding necessary documents and official papers, such as those verifying identification, based on perceived Daesh affiliations.
Have they been forgotten completely?
Fortunately, this problem is not going completely unnoticed by the international humanitarian community. Reports by organizations such as the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) have documented thousands of such cases. The EASO even created a country guidance for Iraq to provide advice to policy-makers and decision-makers in Europe and beyond. Several organizations are already engaged in advocacy and on-the-ground efforts to help facilitate the return of families with perceived Daesh ties. Amnesty International , for example, released a statement in November 2020 that called for any Iraqi and Kurdish government plans to close IDP camps to also include strategies addressing the discriminatory treatment of IPDs with perceived ties to Daesh. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is assisting such efforts, working collaboratively with the IOM in particular. For instance, the governor of Anbar, Mr. Ali Farhan Hameed, has promoted community reconciliation programs to end atrocities such as collective punishment and discrimination against relatives of Daesh members.
Several mechanisms have been deployed to help smooth the transitions to home for these families. For instance, some individuals can publicly disavow and deny any allegiance to Daesh, although overusing this strategy can lead to a loss of its significance. In other cases, families can formally denounce their family members who have joined Daesh or have committed other crimes. For more sustainable re-transitions, the involvement of and mediation by community leaders has been shown to be greatly effective in assuaging the sentiments of members of home communities. Alternatively, some families are being provided makeshift settlements outside of larger cities near their home communities, where they await further instructions for movement. With these though, any delays might result in the makeshift settlements becoming replacement IDP camps because people are forced to stay there for too long.
Sounds of a hopeful future?
Tackling this pressing issue and ensuring the safe return of displaced communities across Iraq is essential for continued peace and stability in the country. Community members must be able to live in harmony with one another; otherwise, the unresolved tensions will only sow the seeds for future unrest, creating a vicious cycle of violence. Thus far, nearly 5 million displaced Iraqis have returned home, bringing hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for other IDPs that have not been lucky enough to return home just yet. The strong collaboration from the international community to support Iraq’s rebuilding can also help to ensure that IDPs have their needs for food, security and shelter met while the country rebuilds. Iraq has undeniably suffered greatly at the hands of Daesh, but perhaps soon her people will find a permanent peace.
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