Iraq returning displaced civilians from camps to unsafe areas

Iraqi security forces are forcibly returning civilians from refugee camps to unsafe areas in the Anbar province, exposing them to death from booby-traps or acts of vigilantism, refugees and aid workers say. Managing more than two million Iraqis displaced by the war against Islamic State is one of Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s most daunting tasks. But critics say he is more interested in winning elections in May than alleviating the suffering of displaced Iraqis and returning them safely home. Authorities are sending back people against their will, refugees and aid workers say, to ensure that the election takes place on time. People must be in their area of origin to vote and if they do not get home, this could delay the election. Abadi is riding a wave of popularity after defeating IS in Iraq and is anxious the election should not be held up. His strategy is not without its hazards.

Abadi risks alienating voters if displaced sections are seen to be suffering from being sent home to dangerous areas. Abadi is seeking a second term in which he plans to fight corruption and maintain national unity in the face of Kurdish separatism. He will need all the votes he can muster to face down a challenge from candidates linked to militias. Interviews with aid workers and dozens of displaced people at camps in the town of Amriyat al Fallujah, located in the Anbar province, 40 km from Baghdad, 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. 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 on condition of anonymity, estimated that between 2,400 and 5,000 people were forcibly returned between November 21 and January 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 was an exaggeration.
“Our primary concern is the safety of our citizens, our job is to protect people,” Iraqi Joint Operations Command Spokesman Brigadier General Yahya Rasool said.
However, “citizens have to go home” now that IS had been defeated, he said.
Some aid workers said local military commanders told them the orders came from Abadi’s office.
The prime minister’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
On November 25, security forces arrived at a camp in Amriyat al Fallujah 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 filled with booby-traps left by retreating IS fighters and their houses had been destroyed.— Reuters