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Iraq: Hundreds of thousands more risk displacement sparking fresh humanitarian crisis

    AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
    August 16, 2016

    Increased humanitarian assistance is urgently required to alleviate the suffering of millions of Iraqis displaced across the country and to provide basic services to hundreds of thousands of people who are expected to be displaced by military operations to recapture territory controlled by the group calling itself Islamic State (IS), said Amnesty International today following a three-week research trip to the country.

    Humanitarian organizations have already been struggling to meet the most basic needs of the more than 3.4 million people who have been forced to flee IS rule and ongoing fighting to recapture IS territory. The impending battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and an IS stronghold, is expected to displace hundreds of thousands more in the coming months.

    “Unless humanitarian aid is adequately funded, planned for and implemented, the potential influx of hundreds of thousands more displaced people fleeing the fighting and horrific abuses under IS control will push Iraq past breaking point with devastating consequences,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Advisor who is leading the research mission to Iraq.

    “We have witnessed how the vast majority of displaced people in camps or living in unfinished building sites across the country already have little or no access to basic necessities and medical care. The Iraqi authorities’ response to displaced people has been woefully insufficient and much of the world has largely ignored their plight.”

    The international community has ploughed the vast majority of their resources and efforts into providing support to the military operations to combat IS. 

    “While the international community, including the USA, European states and others, has been eager to provide financial backing to the military campaign against IS, it has been far slower to provide contributions to alleviate the consequences on the civilian population. World leaders must urgently step up their funding for humanitarian assistance to those displaced civilians, some of whom were forced to flee due to the military operations supported by the international community,” said Donatella Rovera. 

    “Additional international funding is desperately needed to meet the basic needs of the millions already displaced and prepare for further mass displacement from military operations to retake Mosul and the surrounding areas.”

    UN agencies have reported a shortfall of 53% of the funding needed to meet their crisis response plan for 2016.

    For people like Ahmad, a father of seven, displaced from Iraq’s north-west Ninewa province, the consequences are disastrous. He described to Amnesty International how he has struggled to feed his family after his home and livelihood were destroyed:

    “At night I go to sleep dreading the morning, because I have nothing left to offer to my children and I can’t bear to look them in the eye,” he said.

    Five weeks after he and his family arrived at a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) on the outskirts of the northern town of Dibega, they have not yet received a tent. The women and children of the family are sheltering along with hundreds of others in the camp’s very overcrowded school – with 50 or more people squeezed into each room. The men are stranded in a nearby area of the camp where they are forced to sleep in the open air among piles of rubbish and open sewage. Whatever little food is available can’t be preserved in the stifling heat, with the temperature reaching over 50 degrees Celsius.

    In the space of a few weeks the camp for IDPs in Dibega has grown to the size of a small town, now hosting more than 30,000 people who fled IS-controlled areas. 

    In Anbar governorate, west of Baghdad, where more people have been displaced by the conflict than anywhere else in the country, the situation is similarly dire. Sprawling camps in the desert have buckled under the pressure of an influx of 87,000 more displaced people since the military offensive to retake the city of Falluja and surrounding areas began at the end of May.  

    “We survived hell under Daesh (IS) and hoped to find relief here,” Hala, a mother of six, told Amnesty International in an IDP camp in Anbar’s Khalidiya area. Her husband has been missing since being abducted by IS two years ago.

    “I have received very little help in the two months I have been here. For weeks we had nothing to sleep on. Now we have a tent, but nothing else,” she said.

    “What’s even more tragic is that the suffering of these people could have been avoided if the authorities had been better prepared. Instead, families who arrive, exhausted from treacherous journeys and months of life under siege, with nothing but the clothes on their back, are forced to endure further hardship,” said Donatella Rovera.

    Security measures compounding the crisis

    Security measures and restrictions combined with unclear bureaucratic requirements have also exacerbated the growing humanitarian crisis. 

    Those displaced by recent and ongoing military operations are predominantly members of the Arab Sunni community and are subjected to security screening.

    All men considered of fighting age (roughly between the ages of 15 and 65) who escape areas under IS control are separated from their families to undergo screening and interrogations, which can last from a few days to months for those released and not referred to trial or for further investigation.

    They are held in transit sites near IDP camps or makeshift detention facilities, where conditions are squalid, characterized by severe overcrowding, shortages of latrines and other sanitation facilities, little food and a lack of basic necessities. Some are held outdoors with little protection from the scorching sun. Those in detention sites are frequently denied communication with their families. These flawed and opaque security procedures are applied by both Iraqi central government and the authorities in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

    One woman at Dibega told Amnesty International that she had not heard from her son Hassan, a 20-year-old agricultural worker, since he had been taken away by security forces while they were trying to reach the camp.

    “I just want to know where he is; he is my only son. The officers who took him away told me they would bring him back before sunset but it has been over a month and I don’t know where he is,” she said.

    Security is also cited as a reason to prevent many displaced people from leaving the IDP camps. They must navigate onerous bureaucratic procedures and often require a local sponsor to seek permission to enter cities.

    Others have been prevented from returning to their towns and villages even though these have long been recaptured from IS and secured by forces loyal to the Iraqi government or the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government. 

    Nominally for security grounds, the authorities mostly impose such restrictions in the so-called “disputed areas” in the north of the country.  These areas are now under de-facto control of Shi’a-backed paramilitaries or the KRG, and have long been the subject of territorial disputes.  

    These often arbitrarily imposed restrictions severely limit the ability of displaced people to access the job market leaving them dependent on humanitarian aid.

    Ali, a farmer and father in an IDP camp in Guermawa, north-western Iraq told Amnesty International:

    “Back home in the village we have a house and I could cultivate the land and feed my children. Here we are sleeping on the ground in dust and are forced to rely on whatever little humanitarian assistance we can get, when we can get it.”

    While the Iraqi authorities have the right and duty to protect the lives and physical integrity of civilians within their border, security procedures must comply with international law. Existing arbitrary restrictions on the freedom of movement of IDPs, including those who have been released after security screening, should be lifted.   

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    For media inquiries, please contact Jacob Kuehn // 613-744-7667, ext 236 // email: jkuehn@amnesty.ca