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IDPs returning from Kurdistan camps find areas of origin without support or services

The closure of IDP camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has seen many to return to their home communities prematurely. These returnees face dire conditions, including lack of shelter, water, and essential services, leading to feelings of disillusionment and desperation.

Posted on 06 Jun 2024

As the Government of Iraq and international community seek to support Iraq’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) to resume their lives, the decision to close IDP camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) at the end of July means many people are returning home before they had intended.

Salah al-Din, a governorate in central Iraq, is predicted to see the second greatest number of returns, with more than 8,500 people currently residing in camps in KRI originating from the area.

A key area of return within Salah al-Din is the rural subdistrict of Yathrib, which saw a heavy ISIS presence and loss of life during the conflict. Predominantly abandoned farmland, the area is scattered with small clusters of homes. Many are significantly damaged, whilst others have been reduced to mere piles of rubble.

Damaged housing in Yathrib

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One man, who sat with his pregnant wife three young children in their sun-scorched tent, explained that once he had purchased an air-conditioning unit, cement slabs to set the tent on and paid his debts to local business owners, he has very little remaining for food and water.

Unable to afford the costs of reconstructing their homes, returnees have resorted to co-habiting in disused buildings or establishing small makeshift camps within the gardens of the host community.

People are once again forced to live in tents, yet this time, they find themselves without any support or services.

Since March, more than 4,700 people have left Ashti camp, one of those in KRI set to be closed. Many of these people were set to return to Yathrib and nearby areas, with more returns anticipated in the coming weeks. 

Returnees to Yathrib, including days-old babies and pregnant women, are experiencing dire conditions. They express feelings of disillusionment at what they have found. The majority opted to return to their homes under the assurance of access to essential services, such as water and electricity, and the belief that they would receive assistance to rebuild or repair their homes.

However, the situation on the ground is starkly different. The local community—many of whom have themselves returned only recently and are struggling with their own challenges to recover from the crisis – are providing support where possible to returnees.

Thus far, aid actors have also been unable to offer support, highlighting a need for coordination and planning between the government and aid actors.

The Government distributed return grants of 4 million IQD (approx US $3,000)  as well as items such as TVs and fridges, to all returnee families who had not previously registered for return and who meet the criteria, which includes having relevant documentation. They also allowed people to pack their tents from the camp and transported them to Yathrib.

Yet, many people explained that this money is simply not enough to rebuild or survive on. Due to expensive building materials, the community estimates that a simple two room dwelling would cost at least 10 million IQD (approx US $7,500), to build. Given the lack of income generation opportunities within the area, it will be very challenging for returnees to sufficiently and timely earn the required income to rebuild and survive day to day expenses.

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Due to the high temperatures in central Iraq – soon expected to soar to 50 degrees Celsius, many families have utilized the 4 million IQD grant received to buy air conditioning units. Yet, when entering the tents, it is evident that these only offer limited respite from the unrelenting heat. Not all families have been able to operate air conditioning units, as running them requires use of a generator and money for fuel.

 When asked questions around access to healthcare or education, many returnees became frustrated. With no access to adequate shelter or water – healthcare and education are perceived as luxuries.

There is no access to drinking water in Yathrib. For now, many people are purchasing bottled water, yet as money runs out, this may become less possible. The area has small manmade agricultural canals that supply the farmers with water for their crops and livestock. This unsanitary water is the community’s primary source for cooking and cleaning. Due to water shortages, the water supply works on a ‘ten days on, ten days off’ cycle, yet access to water storage is insufficient to non-existent for most.

Although the camp closure plan included three options to IDPs; return to their homes, integrate locally or resettle elsewhere in Iraq, amongst those who returned home it seems there was a lack of awareness of these options – with many saying they’d only heard of financial support to return home.  This raises a concern that the returns are neither informed, nor voluntary; key elements of ensuring successful returns.

The vast majority of individuals depended on agriculture as their primary means of livelihood to support themselves and their families. However, their farms are destroyed or in need of extensive repairs. A pressing concern is the repair of crucial irrigation systems, which entails significant costs, and a lack of essential resources such as livestock and seeds.

Returnees reported that none of their children had managed to continue their education upon return to Yathrib. Many schools in the area remain damaged beyond use, and returnee children have reportedly been denied admission to schools that are functioning due to the necessity to enrol at the beginning of a school year.

Sectarian tensions also persist in the area. Although local government-led peace initiatives are underway, some returnees have been forbidden from reaching their homes by local actors due to pre-existing tensions that arose during the ISIS conflict. Bringing the community back together after such extensive and complicated trauma is a slow and delicate operation.

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People described their situation as unbearable. Without adequate access to shelter and water, they fear for their health. Many people said that if their situation did not improve, they would be forced to leave Yathrib and seek a home for their families elsewhere, where there is better access to services.

The Government of Iraq put forward a detailed plan to aid the smooth return of IDPs from camps, along with multiple provisions that would aid them to achieve durable solutions to their displacement. 

However, returns have commenced before the steps within the plan, that would ensure adequate standards of living, have been implemented. People who were forced to leave their homes should be given the chance to return and rebuild their lives.

However, many have spent nearly a decade in IDP camps and are predicted to return to places that are lacking in basic services. For the KRI camp return policy to be a success, it must be combined with adequate support.

It is a concern that IDPs are returning to areas of origin that cannot provide for even their most basic needs. Yathrib, and other areas of return, urgently require temporary provisions to meet the basic needs of people who have already returned, namely water and shelter.

Alongside this, distribution of compensation grants for destroyed housing must be prioritised and stepped up so that people are able to rebuild their homes. Meanwhile, service rehabilitation and extension must commence to ensure that IDPs are able to live in dignity, and to ensure people have a chance to rebuild the lives they left nearly 10 years ago.

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Durable solutions

A durable solution means that people who have experienced displacement would no longer require specific assistance and protection related to their displacement, and that they can enjoy their human rights without facing discrimination due to having been displaced.

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