[Published here November 13, 2020]
Shredded tarp flutters from the metal frames of what were once thousands of tent homes. After five years hosting displaced Iraqis, the vast camp was emptied in under 48 hours.
The Habbaniyah Tourist Camp, a former luxury resort used to house Iraqis fleeing the Islamic State group, closed this week as part of a sudden government push to shutter dozens of displacement camps by the end of the year.
Iraqi authorities say the campaign will ensure people finally go back home — but non-governmental groups and the displaced themselves fear the hasty returns will expose families to danger.
“I’m scared for my children and husband,” said mother-of-six Zainab, who was among dozens aboard one of a convoy of buses ferrying them away from the site, known as the HTC, 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Baghdad.
Zainab said her family would have to move to another camp because her tribe in western Anbar province had accused her family, falsely, of allegiance to IS.
“We can’t go back home,” she said. “I’m afraid they’ll detain and massacre us.”
Three years after Iraq declared IS defeated by a gruelling military campaign, nearly 1.3 million people remain displaced, one-fifth of them in camps.
Rapid camp closures could leave 100,000 Iraqis in limbo, just ahead of winter and amid the coronavirus pandemic, warned the Norwegian Refugee Council aid group.
The migration ministry’s top Anbar province official, Mustafa Serhan, told AFP that authorities had coordinated with the military and tribes to ensure HTC’s residents could return home safely.
“There is no speedy or forced return for these families,” he insisted. “Anbar’s camps are five, six or seven years old. What’s fast about that?”
But Iraqis leaving HTC this week contradicted this.
One of them, who gave his name as Ali, told AFP he would be forced to rent an apartment in his hometown of Qaim because his house was destroyed years ago.
– ‘Safe haven is gone’ –
While HTC residents had one month’s notice the camp would be shuttered, those living in Hammam al-Alil, the largest camp in Iraq’s northern province of Nineweh, had even less.
“First they said there was no way the camp would close. Then they said 2021. Then they said one week!” said Saada, a 36-year-old mother of seven living there.
Al-Qahera, her home village in the mountainous enclave of Sinjar, remains heavily damaged and lacks public services.
“After all this, I’ll kill myself — I’m tired of life, of this cold, rainy world,” she said. “This camp was a safe haven for us, and now that safe haven is gone.”
Starting November 5, more than 7,000 of Hammam al-Alil’s 8,000 residents had been bussed out, either to ruined homes or other camps yet to be shut, said camp officials.
Iraq has been open about its intention to close the camps for years but went into overdrive last month, NGO workers told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Between October 18 and 30, Iraq shut three camps around Baghdad, one in Karbala further south and one in Diyala to the east.
Nearly half of the residents have not returned to their areas of origin and are now registered as out-of-camp internally displaced persons, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
One aid worker warned that while Iraq had adopted the principles of “informed, dignified and sustainable” IDP returns, “all those conditions are being violated by what’s happening now”.
– ‘Pressure and intimidation’ –
Humanitarian workers point to a worrying precedent: last year, hundreds who were relocated from camps in a similar process faced threats and even grenade attacks.
New research on those returnees found nearly 60 percent described their departure as involuntary, and 44 percent were subsequently displaced again.
One government official told AFP the return effort was sped up on a direct order from Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhemi, echoing what several NGO workers suspected.
Authorities hope the returns would encourage aid groups and donor countries to redirect funding from camps to areas still needing reconstruction, a humanitarian worker and two officials said.
Belkis Wille of Human Rights Watch said that while she understood the desire to reintegrate citizens into society, “the way to do that is not to force people to return home against their will, where they will be made more vulnerable”.
Several non-government organisations based in Iraq told AFP they feared public criticism of the repatriation effort would affect their access to camps or work visas for foreign staff.
“There is a significant increase in pressure and intimidation, and a risk of punitive actions taken by the government,” the senior NGO worker said.
When the returns campaign began, the United Nations’ top humanitarian officer in Iraq, Irena Vojackova-Sollorano, said the move was “taken independently of the UN.”
Her office later cancelled a scheduled interview with AFP, declaring the “UN have no further comment on this topic at this time, and there are no additional details to share”.