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Yazidi survivors alarmed by move to close camps

Forced to flee by Islamic State (formerly Isis), Joni Shebo Ali Aamer, in Shariya camp, holds a photograph of her ruined home in Sinjar. ‘We have no place to go,’ she says. Photograph: G Ligios

The Iraqi government has been accused of making the survivors of the Sinjar massacre fear for their future once more, almost a decade after the murderous Islamic State campaign that forced tens of thousands of people to flee from their homes.

In January, the Iraqi council of ministers set a deadline of 30 July to close 23 displacement camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. The camps are home to about 155,000 internally displaced people (IDP), mostly Yazidis, who were slaughtered, kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery in their thousands at the height of the violence in northern Iraq in 2014.

The ministry of migration and displacement (MoMD) is offering each family 4m Iraqi dinars (£2,400) towards resettlement costs and is launching a job-creation programme.

But the plans have raised concerns among those living in the camps, as well as among the UN refugee agency’s representative in Iraq, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, and rights organisations including Human Rights Watch.

The imminent closure “is leading many to feeling under pressure to return home, rather than making a voluntary and informed decision”, Beuze told reporters last week.

Baghdad has already closed all the displacement camps inside federal Iraq, with most people returning home or living in informal settlements, but in the autonomous region of Kurdistan the displaced are mostly from Sinjar, a small region that is still largely in ruins.

Although the Islamic State (IS) insurgency was quashed in 2017, people told the Guardian that the money on offer was not enough and it was not safe to return home.

“If the government takes us out of this place, we have nowhere to go,” said Sare Ravo Murad Peshow, 60, who lives in Shariya camp near the city of Duhok. “I can’t go back to a place where five of my kids were killed.”

More than 2,700 Yazidi people are still missing, believed to be dead or still in captivity, according to the International Organization for Migration.

About 12,255 people live in Shariya camp, with many regarding it as a sanctuary. “We don’t have a job, a shop or a car. Only God and those who do good deeds help us,” said Peshow, whose son and four grandsons were kidnapped by IS in Sinjar. Only one grandson has returned.

She and her husband, like most people here, depend on MoMD food parcels, delivered every two or three months, and help from other residents.

Peshow said she had yet to learn if her application for government compensation, which is available to those from Sinjar whose property was damaged by IS, had been approved.

Another resident, Tahseen Hussen Osman Rasho, 39, said: “Some people have no land to build on – 4m dinars, that’s not enough to rebuild a single room.

“There are no jobs there, no electricity, and when there is, it is little. There’s no drinking water. Without money or social assistance, people can’t raise their family. I won’t take my kids back there.”

Rasho, who works as a handyman in Duhok, said his family of six struggled to make ends meet and relied on the government food parcels. He had also yet to hear about his compensation claim.

Rasho escaped with his wife, Tawaf Khodeda Osman, and their children a day before IS arrived in Sinjar, after friends in the south called to warn them. He fears that the small mountainous region is still unsafe.

It is undoubtably unstable, with various armed groups still active including the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces and Kurdish PKK-aligned militias. The area is also a key transit route for smuggling guns between Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.

Joni Shebo Ali Aamer, 60, has photographs of her house in a village in Sinjar district. It was blown up by IS. “If the government rebuilt the area and brought electricity and water, we would go back. But everything has been destroyed and we have no place to go,” she said.

Pir Dian Jafar, director of Kurdistan’s department of migration, displacement and crisis, said he believed the Iraqi government would miss its 30 July deadline and that each family should receive at least 10m dinars “to fix their house, and to be able to live in it”.

“There’s no turnout of the IDPs to register their name for departure,” Jafar said. “We can’t force the closure [of the camps] and tell people to go back to their place.”

Ali Abbas, the spokesperson for Iraq’s MoMD, said the government did not want people to become reliant on aid.

“The ministry is continuing its work to close the camps before the announced date,” he said, adding that the financial package on offer was intended to “restore small homes and purchase permanent goods.”

© 2024 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies


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