Guilt by Association: Iraqi Women Detained and Subject to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

After the liberation of Mosul from Islamic State (ISIS) occupation in July 2017, Refugees International (RI) traveled to Iraq to examine the specific challenges faced by women and girls in the aftermath of the military operation. Among the most urgent issues are the detention and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of Iraqi women and girls perceived or alleged to be affiliated with ISIS by Iraqi Security Forces and other Iraqi authorities. For the security of the survivors and the humanitarians in whom they have confided, RI did not directly interview any of the affected women and girls. However, RI interviewed dozens of humanitarian actors with knowledge of violations occurring in camps in Ninewa, Salaheddin, and Anbar governorates. Based on the consistency of reporting and the experience and reputations of the actors involved, RI believes the information provided in this brief is credible and merits the concern of the government of Iraq and organizations with responsibility for humanitarian issues in the wake of military operations to defeat ISIS.


From its inception in October 2016 through its official conclusion in July 2017, the coalition-backed operation to defeat ISIS in Mosul resulted in more than one million people displaced. It is in the context of this ongoing displacement crisis that Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) – state security entities and government-affiliated militias – attempt to discern the perpetrators from the survivors of ISIS violence.

In the case of Mosul alone – just one of multiple cities that ISF has retaken or plans to retake from ISIS – this is a mammoth undertaking. Throughout this process, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its protection partners have observed high levels of detention of people perceived or alleged to be affiliated with ISIS on the basis of being sympathizers and/or as relatives (nuclear or extended family member) of an ISIS fighter or administrator.

RI was told about numerous alleged cases that amount to rape, and the misuse of humanitarian assistance and access to services as tools to exploit women and girls.

ISF have forcibly relocated and encamped these individuals at multiple sites throughout the country. According to humanitarians RI interviewed, these sites are effectively detention camps. These displaced Iraqis, who are primarily women and children, have their documentation seized and are disallowed freedom of movement. In some camps, Iraqi authorities have invited the humanitarian community to provide limited services, which has allowed humanitarians to witness inhumane conditions and other abuses against the detained women and children, including separated and unaccompanied minors. Actions and conditions reported to RI include verbal abuse, limited food aid, malnutrition, and denial of access to essential services such as healthcare. For example, in one (now-defunct) camp that was located in Ninewa, ten deaths were reported within the first few days of its establishment, deaths that humanitarians asserted could have been avoidable with timely and appropriate healthcare.

The humanitarian actors’ knowledge about the purpose and scope of the detention camps is limited. Many humanitarians believe both the purpose and the effect of the camps is collective punishment of people who are perceived to be affiliated to ISIS. Meanwhile, some Iraqi authorities have communicated to humanitarians that the camps are a protection measure; ISF officials assert that they are protecting individuals susceptible to attacks by other civilians who seek revenge for suffering and losses inflicted by ISIS.

Whatever the actual purpose of these camps, those held there do not appear to be benefiting from any process that might fairly determine whether they bear any criminal responsibility related to the actions of ISIS, whether they are simply connected to ISIS members by familial links, or whether they themselves are simply survivors of ISIS-inflicted violence. Further, the confluence of the vulnerability of the women and girls detained in this manner, the limited food assistance, and control of food aid by abusive camp administrators and armed actors is a recipe for continuing human rights abuses and a humanitarian disaster.


  • The Government of Iraq must:
    • Ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction be treated humanely, enjoy access to basic goods and services, free from exploitation and abuse;
    • Hold perpetrators accountable for the sexual exploitation and abuse of displaced women and children;
    • Direct its Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) to provide organizations with protection, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) expertise and unfettered access to all camps immediately; the GBV Sub Cluster, the humanitarian GBV coordination body, must coordinate the provision of GBV prevention and response services across all sites; and
    • Ensure that all those in de facto detention are provided the substantive and procedural safeguards of international human rights and humanitarian law, so that they are not subject to indefinite and arbitrary detention.
  • The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq/UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Women’s Protection Advisor, and the Iraqi National Operations Center should jointly launch an investigation into the arbitrary detention and sexual exploitation of people perceived or alleged to be affiliated to ISIS in camps.
  • The Protection Cluster, the UN-coordinated humanitarian protection coordination body, must address sexual exploitation prevention and response in all guidance notes it produces with regards to the protection of families perceived or alleged to be affiliated with ISIS.
  • Under the leadership of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse Network in Iraq should introduce a reporting mechanism for all displacement sites where humanitarians are providing services.
  • Coalition partners, led by the United States, must press the Government or Iraq to adopt the recommendations above (directed at the Government of Iraq), and, in particular, urge the Government of Iraq to prioritize the accountability of SEA perpetrators amongst Iraqi Security Forces

Francisca Vigaud-Walsh and Daryl Grisgraber traveled to Iraq in July 2017.