Contrary to popular opinion, the displaced Arabs now living in Iraqi Kurdistan are actually an economic boon to the semi-autonomous northern region, Iraq’s Minister of Displacement and Migration, Jassim Mohammed, told NIQASH in an interview. Nor have the displaced created any shortages of power and water in Iraqi Kurdistan, Mohammed argues, because they are living in areas where power and water should be supplied anyway.
In an interview, during which the Iraqi-Kurdish politician also updated various figures on internal displacement due to the security crisis, sparked by the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group in 2014, Mohammed spoke about a recent stoush with Europeans about would-be Iraqi asylum seekers there and how the government was encouraging locals to return home if their towns were safe again.
We want to remind all countries of their obligations to those who enter their country as refugees.
NIQASH: There are a number of different figures as to how many people have been displaced inside Iraq due to the current security crisis. What are your latest numbers?
Jassim Mohammed: Four million people have been displaced since June 2014. Out of that, around 1.6 million have returned to their home towns and more are going home every day. Most of the families that remain displaced are originally from Mosul. Of the 2.4 million Iraqis displaced, around 1.3 million are from Mosul.
Over the past three years we have spent IQD1.9 trillion (around US$1.5 billion) on helping the displaced.
NIQASH: Would you say that the start of fighting Mosul has increased that number?
Mohammed: Yes, we believe around 194,000 people have left the Mosul and Hawija areas since the military operation began in October. After the eastern side of the city was cleared of extremists, around 40,000 people have returned to their homes in Mosul. Now that the next phase of the military operation is beginning we expect around another 250,000 people to leave the eastern and southern parts of Mosul. But we have prepared for this.
NIQASH: Do the first numbers also include Iraqis who left Iraq altogether?
Mohammed: I don’t have accurate figures on that. We know there are a lot of Iraqis in Turkey, and smaller numbers in Syria and Jordan now. A sizeable number have also gone to Europe and most of those people come from the areas that fell under the IS group’s control. Most of them left the country from Baghdad or from Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: In terms of people going to Europe, recently Finland said that Iraq was obligated repatriate its nationals, who were not granted asylum. And some are asking whether Iraq is about to do a deal with some European countries, whereby Iraqi asylum seekers are deported back to Iraq.
Mohammed: There are no such agreements being discussed - although some people are returning voluntarily. An Iraqi delegation visited Finland a few days ago after we heard they wanted to repatriate many Iraqis. But we want to remind all countries of their obligations to those who enter their country as refugees.
NIQASH: The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have been criticizing the Iraqi government recently, saying that many Iraqis came into the Kurdish region because they were displaced but that Baghdad is not helping to take care of these people.
Mohammed: Actually many of the displaced who entered Iraqi Kurdistan have been responsible for a lot of growth and economic activity in the Kurdish region. Part of the state services provided to the displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan comes from Baghdad and other parts come from other international and national organisations.
It is true that the Iraqi Kurdish government has been providing the displaced with water and electricity, especially in places like Dohuk. However it is not true that this has caused problems with the supply of power and water to Iraqi Kurdish locals. A lot of the displaced are living in urban centres, where there should be water and power provided anyway, regardless of who is resident.
NIQASH: How are you helping those who return?
Mohammed: Families register themselves and we give each family IQD1.5 million (around US$1,250) as a kind of grant to encourage them back to their homes. Those who cannot return are only given IQD500,000 (around US$416). But we are not forcing anyone to return to their homes and we would stress that the displaced people should return to their homes, whenever they wish to.
NIQASH: When the security crisis ends, what will happen to the people in the camps?
Mohammed: We won’t close them if people stay in them. But if everyone left, obviously, we would close them down.
NIQASH: The camps for displaced Iraqis are another talking point. Conditions there are bad. In fact there have even been rumours that in some camps, people have died recently because of the cold weather.
Mohammed: It’s primitive in the camps even though there are tents that have water and electricity and there are health services. But obviously life in the camps is not like life outside the camps. As to rumours about people dying, these are not true. None of the displaced people have died because of the cold weather. There are about 70,000 people living in both the Hassan Sham camp and the Khazar camp [east of Mosul] and of course, there are deaths there. But none of the deaths came because of the cold weather. We are providing the people there with fuel [for heating].
NIQASH: We have also heard that in some areas, families associated with the IS group have not been allowed to return to their homes. In fact some are trapped in camps for the displaced. What do you think will happen to those people?
Mohammed: The Iraqi government does not think anybody should be forced to return to their homes before they are ready but nor should they be kept away from their homes if they wish to return. We are encouraging people to return home. If their areas remain insecure, we continue to classify them as displaced people and they will continue to receive aid. But if their areas are classified as safe, and they do not choose to return home and decide to stay where they are, then they cannot be considered to be displaced anymore, simply people who have changed their address.