Iraq's decision to close a slew of displacement camps risks leaving more than 100,000 people homeless as winter approaches and the coronavirus pandemic gathers steam, an aid group warned Monday.
More than three years after the Islamic State group lost control of its territory in Iraq, at least a million civilians are still displaced, with hundreds of thousands living in camps. Some don't have homes to return to, while others fear that perceived affiliation with the militant group will leave them vulnerable to abuse.
Iraq's Displacement Ministry said in late October that it was moving ahead with closures as part of a program of "safe and voluntary return." Aid groups and human-rights researchers say that in practice civilians are often ordered to leave their displacement camp on short notice and without clarity on whether it will be possible to return to the areas they came from.
On the journey, some risk being waylaid at checkpoints because of a lack of adequate paperwork, or because their names are on, or are similar to, lists of alleged Islamic State members.
Human-rights groups say these lists are often unreliable and based on confessions carried out under torture.
"Closing camps before residents are willing or able to return to their homes does little to end the displacement crisis. On the contrary, it keeps scores of displaced Iraqis trapped in this vicious cycle of displacement, leaving them more vulnerable than ever, especially in the middle of a raging pandemic," said Jan Egeland, secretary general for the Norwegian Refugee Council, on Monday.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has described tackling the country's displacement crisis as one of his main priorities. The camps are pitched on barren earth, exposed to the elements and vulnerable to flooding.
In June, Kadhimi became the first prime minister to visit a camp since the Islamic State's defeat, taking questions from residents and appealing to them for patience.
The Norwegian Refugee Council said Monday that some 600 households have left northern Iraq's Hammam Al Alil Camp, one of the country's largest, on the instruction of Iraqi authorities, and that the facility was due to close next week. Several others have already closed in recent weeks.
In the cases of civilians leaving camps in Baghdad and the southern city of Karbala, almost half have not been able to return to the areas they came from, according to the International Organization of Migration.
The Islamic State group killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in its quest for land and religious supremacy. The United Nations has described the group's attempt to eradicate Iraq's Yazidi minority as genocide.
But as the caliphate crumbled, the stories of those who were part of it have been hard to verify. Many people say they joined the group because they had no choice, serving in administrative roles to be able to feed their families. Women and children, in particular, often had little choice whether to stay or go.
In a report last month, the International Crisis Group warned that the most vulnerable are those with family ties to alleged Islamic State members, who become stigmatized as somehow complicit in their relatives' actions.
"These encamped people are, in effect, exiles in their own country. Yet they are Iraqis, living inside Iraq. They cannot be ignored or wished away; they are part of the country's future," the group said.
On Monday, the Norwegian Refugee Council called on Iraq's government to provide a clear plan for camp closures and to share that information at least a month in advance.
It also urged authorities to coordinate the return process with checkpoints along the families' routes home.