Can Iraq’s Internally Displaced Return?

Six weeks ago, Refugees International traveled to Iraq to meet with and assess the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) about returning home to cities and towns liberated from ISIS control. Mosul had just been declared liberated even though conflict continued in the west of the city, and already there was talk of who could go back, when, and to what. There was also plenty of discussion about who could not go back, right now or maybe ever.

Opinions varied depending upon where people’s homes had been and what daily basics they thought were available to them if they returned. In Salahaddin governorate, people from Baiji repeatedly told us how various militias had control of the city and so it was not safe to go back. In Anbar, many people were willing to go home to their towns and villages, but were often waiting until electricity and sanitation services had been restored. In Baghdad, people who talked about returning to the areas in and around Mosul almost always mentioned concerns about whether they could now trust their neighbors.

The widespread suspicion and distrust that are everyday features of life in Iraq are not new, but they may have grown deeper in recent years.

All of this came immediately and frustratingly to mind when reading about how ISIS pressured government workers during its control of Mosul. It has been clear for quite some time that many people who did not overtly rebel against ISIS were not, in fact, supporters of the group. Rather, they simply wanted their families and themselves to live for as long as possible. The situations in which average people were compelled not to protest ISIS’s actions in order to survive were many: people used as human shields during the conflict, girls required to marry ISIS fighters against their will, doctors compelled to treat ISIS combatants first, children forcibly recruited and taken away from their families, and government workers threatened with death if they didn’t continue working for the new authority.

In addition, a large group of Iraqis are now identified primarily by the fact that they may be family members and relatives of ISIS fighters, and are therefore assumed to be sympathetic to the extremists, including in cases where they suffered some of the most brutal coercion imaginable.

It is understandable to fear genuine ISIS members and sympathizers; no one wants to be part of a system that is so incompatible with their own values and ideas. But that same fear causes so many people to have a visceral reaction, assuming that anyone who did not flee wanted to stay. This is going to be a significant obstacle to IDP returns in places where people who stayed under ISIS would live among those who fled and returned. In addition, many innocent ISIS survivors are IDPs as well. If there is general sentiment that they shouldn’t return and shouldn’t go into other communities, they may be isolated and left without the support they need. The widespread suspicion and distrust that are everyday features of life in Iraq are not new, but they may have grown deeper in recent years.

Changing a society’s mindset will not happen overnight, but the government of Iraq needs continued support in those efforts in order to move forward.

Governments, donors and civil society groups generally agree that IDP returns are a central element of Iraq moving forward as a society and a country. But the complications of returns are readily apparent in such a context. Many people are afraid to go home because of who runs the town or because of who the new neighbors might be, but they also don’t want to remain displaced for years on end. Will religiously mixed communities in Iraq become a thing of the past? How will people reclaim and control land and property in an area to which they can longer return? How can ISIS survivors reintegrate into a community that is largely hostile to them?

At the moment, few retaken places in Iraq are rehabilitated enough for the displaced to return. While people wait for that day, they need to see a focused effort to establish social cohesion, to fairly compensate people for losses, and to re-develop communities in which people feel safe and supported. Changing a society’s mindset will not happen overnight, but the government of Iraq needs continued support in those efforts in order to move forward.

Top photo: Iraqi IDPs in a camp in Anbar.

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