Anbar Families Want to Return Home but Not To Unsafety, Lack Of Jobs

Anbar Families Want to Return Home but Not To Unsafety, Lack Of Jobs

 Iraqi security forces are forcibly returning civilians from IDP (internally displaced persons) camps to unsafe areas in the predominantly Sunni Anbar province, exposing them to death from booby-traps or acts of vigilantism, IDPs and aid workers have reported to Reuters news.

Two months ago Human Rights Watch documented forced returns in Anbar, the Sunni heartland of Iraq, 40 km (25 miles) from Baghdad, and the situation has not improved.  

Interviews with aid workers and dozens of displaced people at camps in the town of Amriyat al-Falluja, as well as with several families who were returned to other areas in the province, reveal that many were forced to go home and several suffered death or injury upon doing so, reports Reuters.

Aid workers said military trucks arrive at camps unannounced and commanders read out lists of people, who have one hour to pack their belongings and go.

The aid workers, who all spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, estimated that between 2,400 and 5,000 people were forcibly returned between Nov. 21 and Jan. 2.

“These returns are not safe,” said one aid worker. “Even those who don’t openly resist really have no other choice. They cannot really say no to a bunch of people with guns.”

An Iraqi military spokesman said the claim that the military forced displaced civilians to return against their will is exaggerated.

“Our primary concern is the safety of our citizens, our job is to protect people,” Iraqi Joint Operations Command Spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool told Reuters.

However, “citizens have to go home” now that Islamic State had been defeated, he said.

They gave him a tent to live on his land

On Nov. 25, security forces arrived at a camp in Amriyat al-Falluja and told Saleh Ahmed, 37, and his family to return to their home town of Betaya, his father, Mahdi Ahmed, said.

They refused because contacts at home told them the area was not safe but a local commander assured them the area was safe, saying it was “better to go live in a tent in your home town than live in a tent in the camp.”

Saleh reluctantly took his wife and some of his children and got on the truck. Mahdi Ahmed, 72, remained at the camp with his sick wife, another son, and some of Saleh’s children as their names were not on the list.

“They gave him a tent. He went back to our destroyed house and tried to pitch it in our yard,” Mahdi Ahmed told Reuters at the camp in Amriyat al-Falluja.

An explosive went off. Saleh’s wife was killed instantly and his daughter sustained full body burns. Saleh lost one eye and was seriously injured in the other, according to one of his sons, who witnessed the incident.

Cannot afford to return to insecurity

Abdallah, 17, told Reuters his family was forced to return to the town of Jweibeh on Nov. 26

A week later masked men arrived at the family home at 2 a.m. demanding to speak to his father who refused their entry.  They burst in and started shooting. Abdallah’s father suffered leg injuries and his mother lost a finger.  The family do not know what the men wanted.

“It’s not that we don’t want to return but it has to be safe,” said Abdallah, who is now the family breadwinner, working at a shop in the city of Falluja.

For many families, they just don’t have funds to leave the camps, where they can work at small businesses; set up barber shops or fruit stands at makeshift markets and make about $50 a month.

Others don’t return for health reason.  One man whose father suffers from kidney failure said leaving means losing access to a dialysis machine. His village, 450 km (280 miles) from the camp, does not have one.

“I will return once there are adequate health services there, but why should I go before then?” said Jassem Ali, 37.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that Anbar was the top governorate of displacement in 2015 (840,360 individuals) and of return in both 2016 and 2017 (cumulatively over 450,000 and 770,000 individuals); it accounts for 25% of Iraqi IDPs and 46% of returnees.  

Nearly all families (99%) displaced in Anbar say that returning to their place of origin is their main intention in both the short and long term reports IOM.  Confirming Reuter interviews of IDPs, IOM says, lack of security – in addition to lack of services – in the location of origin and house destroyed are still the main deterrent to returns.

Returns continue to be driven by improved security in home towns (87%) and the prospect to work or other livelihoods opportunities (57%), although the latter has proved far more difficult to achieve than expected.