The military campaign to retake ISIS-held areas in Iraq resulted in the mass displacement of civilians and a complex protection crisis, including increased human rights violations and the establishment of IDP (internally displaced persons) camps. There have been consistent reports of civilians’ rights being violated, including unjust detention, child recruitment, torture, assault, and gender-based violence. IDPs not allowed to return home remain in camps that essentially become detention centers while others are forced to return to insecure areas contaminated with explosive remnants of war and lacking necessary services.
Lack of resources leave IDPs, particularly minors, vulnerable to being recruited by armed groups. With camp closure and consolidation planned for 2018 and 2019, along with diminishing funding for camps, IDPs are likely to face significantly more challenging conditions. This strain on resources also is likely to result in a further reduced sense of safety and security, social upheaval, and increased tension. This tension can further damage social cohesion in Iraq.
In early 2017, NP began working in Iraq to provide services to people fleeing violence. NP is now focusing efforts on vulnerable IDPs in camps, people returning to areas that are contested and high-risk, people who have been unjustly detained, and tense areas along the disputed Federal Iraq and Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) border. NP’s headquarters are in Erbil, with additional offices in Kalar and Hamam al Alil.
ISIS took control of portions of western Iraq in January 2014. By June 2014, it captured much of the north-central part of the country and the city of Mosul. Attacks in northwest Iraq in August 2014 extended ISIS’ hold to the Syrian border. Military operations to retake this territory from ISIS began the same month and did not conclude until late 2017.
The battle to retake Mosul from ISIS control was the largest urban battle since World War II, and the human toll of four years of intense combat in Iraq was enormous. Since 2014, nearly 6 million civilians have been displaced, settling in and out of IDP camps across the country. To further complicate this mass displacement, hundreds of thousands were returning to their homes at the same time that large numbers of people were fleeing their homes. The pace and scale of displacement have made the Iraq crisis one of the largest and most volatile in the world.
IDPs are trapped in protracted displacement, with increasingly limited access to services and humanitarian aid. The most vulnerable families have complicated obstacles to returning to their homes—households with sick, disabled, or special-needs members; households with members suspected of ISIS affiliation; and households lacking civil and legal documentation. They face the greatest risk of protection violations and continued displacement.
Female-headed households also face greater risks, as a woman named Nadia has experienced. She arrived at a camp with five children in her care (her husband was prevented from leaving their home). After they settled in a tent, she started to receive frequent threats from local security guards. NP helped her by visiting her often and making sure its presence was obvious. Eventually, the threats stopped and she was able to safely relocate to another place in the camp.
IDPs are sometimes forced to return to their homes before they are ready to go back, while IDPs eager to resume their lives, rebuild their homes, re-enroll their children in school, and reopen their businesses are denied permission to return. Violations against civilians, including unjust detention, child recruitment, torture, assault, and gender-based violence, were prevalent during the military operations and continue in the post-conflict period.
Additionally, IDPs freedom of movement and access to various areas of Iraq are restricted due to extensive amounts of explosive devices in the country that are remnants of war, remaining pockets of ISIS insurgency, unpredictable ISIS attacks, and the presence of a multitude of state, non-state, and quasi state armed individuals.
NP protects civilians and prevents violence, filling a crucial gap in areas of displacement and return in northern and central Iraq. To implement these programs, NP leverages Unarmed Civilian Protection (UCP) tools, such as:
providing a protective presence and protective accompaniments for vulnerable civilians;
building strong relationships with security actors and influential individuals within communities;
working with groups in conflict to establish what conditions are needed for them to be willing to meet in a safe space;
bringing together conflicting parties in safe and neutral spaces and/or mediating disputes as necessary and appropriate;
training and coaching vulnerable civilians to protect themselves.
The NP Camps Team in Hamam al Alil Camp 1 and Jed’ah Camp 5, both in Ninewa Governorate, help IDPs feel safe and secure, and improve their access to services. NP has chosen to work in these camps because of the massive needs of those living there. They face some of the greatest challenges to being able to return to their homes. For example, 29% of the households in Hamam al Alil Camp 1 are headed by females, and the collective Jed’ah Camps are home to nearly 100,000 IDPs.
By consistently patrolling day and night, the NP Camps Team decreases violence and harassment, builds trust in camps, shares timely information about accessing services, finds cases to refer to other humanitarian organizations, and maintains the camps’ civilian character. As needed, the Camps Team provides protective accompaniments when IDPs are under threat, are at risk of physical violence, or need access to services. NP convenes regular meetings of the Community Security Forum, Women’s Group, and Youth Group in each camp to discuss protection concerns faced by these groups. It also coordinates with other humanitarian aid groups to address concerns.
The NP Mobile Team has regular presence in Tuz Khurmatu, a city in Salah al Din Governorate in territory along the disputed Federal Iraq and KRI border. The NP Mobile Team monitored several waves of displaced people in late 2017 and early 2018, and it surveyed IDPs about their immediate needs and longer-term obstacles to returning to their homes. The NP Mobile Team provides protective accompaniments for those returning to ensure their returns are safe, voluntary, and dignified. It also facilitates returnees’ access to services. Additionally, NP is creating a safe space for dialogue between the different communities at the grassroots level, building confidence in the population, linking the Turkmen Town Council members with Kurdish ones, and laying the groundwork for meaningful reconciliation between the different communities.
Because many IDPs remain displaced and will not be able to return home for months and years to come, NP will continue providing life-saving protection to vulnerable communities in Iraq. Protection services and other humanitarian aid will be needed in IDP camps until the camps are closed and IDPs have either returned to their homes, integrated into the communities hosting the camps, or resettled in new places. To facilitate returns to high-risk and contested areas, we will work to create dialogue and reconciliation between communities that were not displaced or have already been restored and communities that remain displaced. These reconciliation processes can help resolve long-standing communal tensions, problems stemming from ISIS occupation and the fight to retake territory from ISIS, and issues along the disputed Federal Iraq and KRI border.
One evening on a night patrol, a male IDP approached NP, saying, “I know of NP and their nightly patrols. Because of these patrols, women feel safer in the camps, especially going to the toilets. Thank you for your work, NP.”
Since February 2017, NP teams working in Iraq have provided:
internally displaced persons with information and facilitated access to humanitarian aid
family reunifications for children and people with special needs with their families after being displaced from Mosul
families with information about their detained family member after tracing their detention cases