A refugee camp in Iraq. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
From the Iraqi government’s point of view, it was a major achievement. Closing the camps for displaced Iraqis in the province of Anbar meant that their mission had been accomplished. For those families who could afford it, they now had the chance to rent a new home and establish themselves outside of the camps. But for those families who had been linked to the extremist group known as the Islamic State, a different fate awaited.
The camps were being closed without any sort of agreement as to what should happen to the extremist-affiliated families – they are affectively outcasts in their own society and need some sort of legislative or social solution to avoid other Iraqis potentially exacting revenge upon them.
Neither government nor tribal-based efforts have come up with any real solution.
After the province of Ninawa in northern Iraq, Anbar has been hosting the most camps for displaced Iraqis. There are estimated to be over 40 camps, run by various local and international organizations under government supervision, distributed along three main points in the Amiriyat al-Somoud area, mostly desert south of Fallujah.
Local man, Munqith al-Obeidi, was one of the first to flee to this area in 2015 after the
extremist Islamic State, or IS, group took over his city, Qaem. He now says that most of those who have left the camps and returned to their homes “were forced to leave through government and security pressure. There are constant threats that we will all be evacuated,” al-Obeidi told NIQASH, “and there’s just generally a feeling of instability now, because camps are being merged or closed.”
It is too early to start returning displaced Iraqi families to their original areas, suggests Bilal Abdul Azeem, a local working for one of the humanitarian organisations in Anbar. A variety of other measures should be taken first, especially when it comes to what are known as the Islamic State families. Many of these people are afraid to leave the camps, he said.
Authorities should try to come to some sort of agreement with local tribes and communities about how the Islamic State, or IS, families will be treated when they return home. If suitable conditions are not created, the families might migrate elsewhere in Iraq, or even overseas, exacerbating the extremist problem, Abdul Azeem argued.
“Most of the families in the camps being closed by the government live there because they are poor and they cannot afford to rent new homes,” Abdul Azeem continued. “So they prefer to stay in the camps. They find shelter there and they are provided with food and health care. Despite the tough environment and poor living conditions, for them, it’s still better than having nothing,” he noted.
The number of IS families are far lower than those who are simply too poor but if the former leave the camps, it is quite possible that families of the victims of the extremists will take revenge on them, Abdul Azeem continued.
“Neither government nor tribal-based efforts have come up with any real solution that can apply to both the victims of the IS group, who are seeking justice and retribution, and to the IS families, who have been isolated by their own societies because a family member joined the extremists,” a senior tribal leader from Fallujah, Abdul Hamid al-Jumaili, explained.
The authorities in Anbar are trying to come up with solutions, insists Mustafa Hamed Sarhan, head of the provincial branch of the Ministry of Displacement and Migration. “We are discussing proposals that could help protect these [IS] families,” he says. “For instance, building a residential complex that’s close to their original homes. That could happen if it’s impossible to reach some sort of agreement with local tribes that would allow them to integrate back into normal society.”
Critics say that if this happens, the IS families will basically just be swapping one prison for another, from a camp to buildings. They will continue to be isolated from the rest of their communities and the danger that they establish a radical enclave behind high walls, bringing up the next generation of extremists, remains.