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Iraq’s camp closures could leave 100,000 homeless as winter looms

The Norwegian Refugee Council said displaced Iraqis are being forced from their camps with little notice.

The Iraqi government’s renewed push to shut down displacement camps throughout the country could leave more than 100,000 people homeless, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said on Monday, warning scores of families will lack shelter during the pandemic and the coming winter.

Despite the Islamic State’s territorial defeat in Iraq three years ago, the camps that sprang up to receive civilians fleeing the fighting still host hundreds of thousands of refugees. Many are reluctant to leave, fearing they will return to find their homes vandalized or destroyed.

Others, particularly Sunni families with a perceived IS affiliation, risk being denied entry. Iraqis must obtain certain paperwork to travel, which is challenging if a relatives’ name appears on the government's notoriously unreliable lists of wanted IS suspects.

Guilt by association also means those who are allowed to move freely risk reprisals in their areas of origin. Human Rights Watch has documented revenge attacks, forced recruitment by local armed groups and other dangers that await many returnees in their communities.

“Closing camps before residents are willing or able to return to their homes does little to end the displacement crisis. On the contrary, it keeps scores of displaced Iraqis trapped in this vicious cycle of displacement, leaving them more vulnerable than ever, especially in the middle of a raging pandemic,” said NRC Secretary-General Jan Egeland.

Last month, the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration announced a new push to close the camps, with 36 scheduled to close in the next several months. So far, more than 600 families have left Hammam al-Alil, an NRC-run camp near Mosul that’s been ordered to close by next week.

Of those made to leave camps near the southern city of Karbala and the capital, Baghdad, in recent weeks, nearly half have been unable to return to their areas of origin, according to data from the International Organization of Migration.

The NRC called on the Iraqi government to give the families at least a month’s notice before they are instructed to leave. The aid group also stressed that authorities need to work with the cities and towns receiving the returnees to ensure they are not turned away at checkpoints.

"Anything short of such measures will expose tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis to continued deprivation, rejection and violence," Egeland said.

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