(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Screening for Islamic State in Iraq: an inexact science

    Behind a guarded fence at Debaga, dozens of men can be seen whiling away the hours as authorities investigate them for potential links to so-called Islamic State.

    All have come to this camp, in the semi-autonomous part of Iraq run by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), from places like Hawija, Qayara, and Mosul – territory held by IS or newly liberated towns and cities.

    They’re in this detention block because they’ve passed an initial screening by Kurdish forces but their name, or indeed something else – perhaps a comment someone else has made about them – still arouses suspicion.

    Fingers curl through the holes of the metal enclosure. Some say they’ve been in this facility for two months and insist there’s nothing to connect them to IS.

    “They interrogated us. We passed the process. Why are they separating us from [our] families and detaining us here?” asked 26-year-old Moatez Mohamed Ahmed from Qayara, who told IRIN he’d been inside the site for nearly six weeks. “No one here is answering my questions.”

    Melhel Kadayer, 23, said his interrogators asked why he took so long to leave IS-held Hawija. “I said I was afraid of being killed.”


    man at fence
    Samya Kullab/IRIN
    Melhel Kadayer speaks to his wife and toddler everyday from behind the fence in a Debaga holding site

    The Mosul offensive has already displaced more than 42,000 people. As the operation to liberate the city intensifies, hundreds of thousands more are expected to follow. All the men and boys over 15 or so have to be screened before they can move on to camps or elsewhere.

    Debaga already houses about 30,000 IDPs. There is no official figure for the number detained. It changes every day: new arrivals are brought in, while others are released. Several detainees told IRIN there were more than 100 men inside the special holding area.

    So who is conducting this vital screening procedure and how, and is anyone monitoring the process to make sure abuses don’t occur?

    Who runs the system?

    All IDPs from areas under IS control or recently liberated are first rounded up in collection points known as “mustering sites”.

    "They are then transported to initial screening sites, which are relatively close to the frontlines and run – at least officially and depending on location -- by a conglomeration of Iraqi and Kurdish security and intelligence forces."

    According to a map seen by IRIN, there are at least 10 of these sites known to international aid agencies, although Nazim Ibrahim Khalaf, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces – a loose coalition of mostly Shia militias fighting alongside the Iraqi military – said there were at least 25 across Iraq. This number could not be independently verified.

    The UN’s humanitarian assistance mission in Iraq, UNAMI, presented a list of guidelines to the Iraqi authorities before the Mosul offensive about how to engage with civilians during armed conflict. It stipulated that these sites should be in predetermined areas and run by the Iraqi army, or police, not under any circumstances by militia groups like Khalaf’s.

    That’s because there have been allegations of serious abuses by the militias – after the liberation of Fallujah, for example, some groups were accused of summary executions and beatings

    Like Fallujah and Ramadi – where post-IS abuses have also been alleged – the population of Mosul is largely Sunni and there’s concern about sectarian reprisals.

    Despite these recommendations, Khalaf said his unit is screening men and women on the frontlines. 

    Related story:

    Who are Iraq's militias?

    But because the process is not formalised, groups on the ground interpret screening differently and not always systematically. A western diplomat said the PMF “don’t do screening, they just have names of people they don’t like.”

    The UN has also encouraged Shia clerics to issue statements as a moralizing influence for militia fighters, especially. On 22 October Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on soldiers and PMF fighters to “exercise the greatest degree of restraint” with civilians in conflict areas.

    Confusing checklists

    Upon arrival at the initial screening sites, men and women, along with any children, are separated and patted down. Security personnel then check each name against a raft of different databases of suspected IS members.

    “As far as we know, there were some 13 separate security services or agencies each with their own lists of individuals who may have committed crimes or constitute security risks,” Francesco Motta, director of UNAMI’s Human Rights Office, told IRIN.

    “But we understand that from the Ramadi campaign onwards, these lists have been consolidated into seven.”

    Much remains unclear. How is the information on these lists being corroborated? How are an individual’s supposed ties to IS, or not, actually determined, and which authority or security agency has the final word?

    "We have our own procedures and methods, that we don't share," Najmadi Ahmed, a Kurdish intelligence officer who is in charge of security at Debaga, told IRIN.

    If someone’s name appears on these lists, they are arrested on the spot.

    Problems inevitably arise when a name appears in one list but not on others. A Western official who witnessed this occur on one occasion said: “There were seven of them with laptops, and they sort of looked at each other and asked: ‘Should we detain him?’”

    Murky intelligence

    Once cleared, internally displaced people (IDPs) are transferred to camps. Those who still elicit suspicion are investigated further in secondary screening sites, such as the one at Debaga.

    In addition to the lists, information given by IDPs is also used to identify who is and who isn’t IS.

    “There are lots of good people among [the IDPs]. They are a good source of intelligence for us to find out who ISIS is and who they hurt,” said Said Hajjar, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander.

    Hazim Mohamed, who was released after two days from Debaga’s screening site and moved to the main camp, was in a group of 60 men rounded up from the Peshmerga frontline and brought to a screening site. He told IRIN that when it was his turn to be interrogated, he was eager to speak. 

    “I gave information about those cooperating with IS in my town. I knew them in my neighborhood,” he said. “I gave them five names so they won’t pass the screening process and make it here.”


    Family in camp
    Samya Kullab/IRIN
    In Qaraya's Jadah camp, men can only join their families if they have passed a security screening

    But relying on the accounts of IDPs also raises the possibility of individuals being named out of revenge or self-interest.

    “The authorities invariably act on all such information. But we have discovered some instances where these allegations were motivated by the desire to settle personal disagreements or disputes, sometimes of long standing between families, and were not necessarily based on whether the accused individuals actually was affiliated with or was supporting [IS],” Motta said.

    This is what Isra Jasem believes happened to her husband. She hasn’t heard from him in two weeks, since he was detained in Makhmour base shortly after they arrived from Hawija. “Someone told me his name came up on the list, but I know my husband, he had nothing to do with IS,” she told IRIN.

    Who is monitoring?

    Aid workers and human rights activists have expressed concern that the screening process separates families unnecessarily, and that the authorities reveal little, if anything, about those who have been held, or why.

    With ongoing allegations of arbitrary detention, torture and public humiliation, they recommend instituting a more thorough monitoring system to improve transparency at screening and detention sites. But given the fraught situation on the ground as the Mosul operation is in its fourth week, the UN appears more sanguine.

    UNAMI’s Human Rights Office has 25 international and local staff reporting on the impact of the Mosul conflict on civilians, including visits to screening centers. But with a limited number of staff and internal security restrictions, it does not have a permanent presence at the sites and can make only sporadic visits.

    Currently, the first screening takes between 24 and 72 hours, “which is not great, but still largely complies with the Iraqi criminal procedures’ code,” said Motta.

    Monitors ensure detainees have had food and water, and notify their families where they’re being kept. Violations witnessed, such as prolonged arrest without charge, or abuse, are reported internally and then brought up in UNAMI’s discussions with the Iraqi authorities.  

    Motta said his staff had benefited from unimpeded access so far, but did voice qualified reservations about the process.

    “The battlefield is complex and resources are stretched. We have our standard, which we don’t shy away from and which we expect the government of Iraq to respect and implement as a minimum – but setting the bar higher than that minimum, while desirable, is not necessarily realistic in the circumstances,” he said.

    “There is really no point asking for a Rolls Royce when the environment you are in only allows for a Volkswagen. As long as the Volkswagen meets the minimum standards, we would be satisfied.”

    Improving the system

    Back-channel negotiations are also under way to try to introduce more checks and balances.

    "We are working very hard to make sure that those who are fleeing are treated with care and dignity with standard procedures and that the process is run by state actors, that it's open to international monitoring," a senior US administration official told journalists. 

    "We have a team that has been deployed... that will look at protection and legal aid issues for these families as they're deploying,” he added. "There's a lot of emphasis on getting this right." 

    Karl Schembri, spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN his organisation had been lobbying too.

    “There should be a civilian force that has observer status in these screening sites to oversee what is going on,” he said.

    But while Western powers, human rights activists, and foreign aid workers are unified in calling for independent monitors to be allowed greater access, different parties on the ground are at odds over the matter.

    “There should be tribal people, NGOs, some people from the Mosul governorate, so that the screening process is a fair one,” said Abdul Rahman Sultan al-Waqaa, a now displaced member of Mosul’s tribal council. 

    Yacoub Gorges Yaqo, a Christian militia fighter, also said a monitoring mechanism was needed, so “there’s no misbehaving”.

    But the idea was rejected outright by Khalaf, the PMF militia commander.

    “When we investigate people, they give us information. Civilians cannot know the information that is being given to us,” he said. “These monitors, we don’t know who they are.”

    Ahmed, the security officer at Debaga, agreed.

    “This process should be secret and officials should be overseeing it,” he said. “Those who are kept for a long time, its because we don’t have enough information about them and we aren’t sure about them.” 

    (TOP PHOTO: Men are detained behind the fence of the holding site in Debaga camp. They are visited by their wives and children as they wait for Kurdish security to complete their investigation and clear them of IS links.)


    Screening for Islamic State in Iraq: an inexact science
    Part of an <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/in-depth/beyond-mosul">in-depth IRIN series</a> exploring how Iraq's problems of displacement and sectarian division threaten to undermine longer-term peace and stability
  • Aid to Syrians: how far does it go?

    Struggling to find work and receiving little aid, many of Lebanon's 1.1 million Syrian refugees are barely getting by. An estimated 90 percent are in debt and nearly all have to make sacrifices.

    Some 603,000 refugees in Lebanon receive $21 in electronic vouchers each month from the World Food Programme. No more than five members of a family are eligible for this payment, which was temporarily reduced in July from $30 to $13.50 a month thanks to funding shortages.

    Other aid organisations provide limited cash assistance. The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, gives the 17,561 "most severely vulnerable refugees" $175 per month. Palestinian refugees from Syria also receive some help from UNRWA, the UN's agency for Palestine refugees. Various other groups provide other kinds of support, but it amounts to very little.

    Future WFP assistance in Lebanon is not a sure thing beyond the end of this year. Dina al-Kassaby, WFP spokeswoman for Lebanon, told IRIN that "without predictable funding, WFP may not be able to provide regular food assistance to the most vulnerable Syrian refugees beyond the next two months."

    Here's how six families make do:

    food lebanon

    Samya Kallab/IRIN


    Abdul Hamid

    From: Idlib
    Residence in Lebanon: Ansarieh, Tyre District
    Family size: 11
    Monthly aid: $105
    Family income: $350 on a good month
    Expenses: $650

    There are three men in the family, so we were lucky. But, because of my heart condition, I can’t work, and my son-in-law... broke his leg, so he can’t work. There is one person left to support the family. My son works in construction, for around $30 to $35 a day. But the work is never steady and at most he might work 10 days in a month. We expect to make less in the winter because there isn’t much construction going on. There really is no way to cover our expenses. We have no choice but to go into debt. I have a big family; there are many mouths to feed. Our food budget alone every month is $100-$150. So we are in debt to the grocer. My wife buys grains, because they last, and vegetables, because they are cheap and she says they are healthy. She uses eggplant and potatoes for dishes that would normally have meat. I haven’t tasted meat in years. But the butcher, he’s a nice man, he gives us the bones for free. So my wife makes a big stew with tomatoes that lasts us at least four days.


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    From: Idlib
    Residence in Lebanon: Ansarieh, Tyre District
    Family size: 7
    Monthly aid: $105
    Family income: $250
    Expenses: $500

    Everyone in the family has high blood pressure, and we need medicine all the time. But it's not covered by the UN and I’ve tried to find organisations that can help us, but I don’t know where to go. I have a $3,000 debt with the pharmacist. It’s a terrible feeling: the feeling you owe someone for something so important for your survival. My sister Akram has a disability, but we can’t afford a wheelchair for her, so she has no choice but to crawl on her hands. We don’t make difficult decisions with our money, we make difficult sacrifices... I can’t tell you if we’ve found ways to make our money last. We’re just in debt, like everyone. Lebanon is so expensive. When we got here we had some savings, very little.


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    From: Aleppo
    Residence in Lebanon: Bisserieh, Sidon District
    Family size: 5
    Monthly aid: $105
    Monthly family income: $250
    Expenses: $300

    The trick is to make things last. We buy lots of vegetables, and grains. My wife makes a big vegetable burghul dish. It's delicious. We eat it almost every day. It lasts for almost a week. Every week we make a grocery list: green vegetables, eggplant, potatoes, rice, burghul, lentils, za’atar, oil, garlic and onions. In a month, that will cost us around $150. Apart from that, we pay the monthly utility fees: $50. Our landlord has agreed to let an aid organisation subsidise our rent for the year, but after next year we will have to pay $300 a month, and I don’t know how we are going to make that work. You see, I’m always thinking about money. I count the eggs, think about how much they are costing us. Before I buy a pack of cigarettes, I have to think about it. Thank god no one in the family is sick. I dread the winter because our room gets so cold, and buying a heater is, again, expensive. I don’t know. I don’t know how we’re going to make it work.


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    From: Homs
    Residence in Lebanon: Bisserieh, Sidon District
    Family size: 3
    Monthly aid: $63
    Family income: $0
    Expenses: $200

    My husband disappeared in Syria three years ago. He left and never came back. So when I fled our home I left with Abu Shadi, my husband’s brother, and their family. They take care of me and my two little children, and all our expenses. The men in the family work in construction. And I help where I can. We buy vegetables, mostly. I found these growing under a tree. It’s a wild plant that we can use for cooking. The best part is that it’s free.


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    From: Hama
    Residence in Lebanon: Bisserieh, Sidon District
    Family size: 5
    Monthly aid: $105
    Family income: $300
    Expenses: $500

    I have to buy diapers for my eight-year old daughter. She has a disability. I think the doctor said it was [caused] by meningitis. We can’t afford the medicine or treatment it would take to treat her. She has tantrums, and she always wants me by her side... When we make the budget, I have to include her diapers. I get 15 disposable diapers for LL 20,000 ($13). Apart from the utilities and food, [the diapers] are one of our major expenses.


    Samya Kullab/IRIN


    From: Yarmouk
    Family size: 5
    Residence in Lebanon: Shatila refugee camp, Beirut suburbs
    Monthly aid: $130
    Family income: $500
    Expenses: $600

    Every month, we make a plan. The plan is very important. I’m a lot luckier than most Palestinians from Syria in this camp, I’m better off because I have a job, and I can provide for my three girls. So, on the first of the month I pay $300 for rent, then $35 for utilities. That’s half the money gone already. Then I have to pay $200 for our loans. You see, my husband is in Germany. We got a Lebanese man to take out a $5,000 loan for us, and while we wait for my husband’s asylum request, the Lebanese man we borrowed from comes once every month to collect his installment, which I have to pay. I still need assistance from UNRWA, even though I’m working. Whatever is left over, I use for food. If my daughter gets sick, it will be a disaster. Healthcare in this country is so expensive. We never buy clothes. The last time I bought my daughters clothing was two... [years] ago, but they never complain. My children are wonderful. They are the best in the world... Oh and my cigarettes, I have to buy cigarettes.

  • Lebanese law forces Syrian refugees underground

    Ibrahim waited outside the legal clinic with his most valuable belongings – Syrian ID, passport, a document proving his status as a UN-registered refugee and a notarised pledge promising not to work in Lebanon – all in a crumpled shopping bag.

    The 47-year-old father of five from Aleppo meets all the requirements for a residency permit in Lebanon, but when he last applied he was told his promise to stay jobless wasn’t believable and he therefore needed a Lebanese citizen to vouch for him.

    So he did what most others do. He became illegal.

    A complicated set of laws has made obtaining legal residency in Lebanon so difficult that an estimated two-thirds of the country’s Syrian refugees now lack the proper papers, putting them at constant risk of arrest.

    Ibrahim chanced it to seek out legal advice, crossing Lebanese army checkpoints on his way through the eastern Bekaa Valley, but found little respite. “The lawyer said there was nothing to be done: either find a sponsor or lay low,” he told IRIN, still clutching the shopping bag.

    New refugees, new law

    Since the war in their country began four years ago, Syrians have been pouring across the border into Lebanon, and those registered with the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, number around 1.2 million.

    With the influx came concerns that the Lebanese economy couldn’t absorb the burden of the newcomers, who some also see as a threat to the country’s fragile security situation.

    In June 2014, in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees and keep tabs on their whereabouts, Lebanon prohibited Syrian refugees from re-entering the country if they visited home. Then, in January of this year, the government introduced a new set of entry and exit regulations for their Syrian neighbours.

    Syrians who are registered with the UNHCR can now prolong their legal stay in Lebanon for a year, but only if they pledge not to work. Non-refugee Syrians require a Lebanese sponsor if they want to remain in the country.

    See: Stranded Syrians at ‘serious risk’ of losing refugee status in Lebanon

    But refugees and aid workers report that some officials from General Security, the government office that handles residency, are not applying the law as it is written. The problem is particularly acute in the Bekaa Valley, where refugees are highly concentrated and are regularly being asked for a local guarantor.

    This was Ibrahim’s experience. “They told me I can only renew if I find a sponsor,” he said. But this is no easy task, as he has found. “It has to be someone I trust and not someone who will try to exploit my family.”

    The Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs the Bekaa Valley legal clinic Ibrahim turned to, has been keeping tabs on the growing problem. “Most of the refugees I see are illegal, I believe, as a direct result of the law,” said Patricia Safi, a lawyer who provides legal assistance to refugees. 



    UNHCR spokeswoman Dana Sleiman said the agency was familiar with complaints about the law’s application.

    “Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR have reported varying practices by the authorities,” she told IRIN.

    A General Security source in Beirut told IRIN that there might be case-specific reasons why refugees in the Bekaa Valley were being told to find a guarantor. “The General Security officer might have reason to believe [a refugee] is working when he says he won't,” the source said.

    Renewal costs

    Safi said many refugees she sees never even attempt to renew their residency because they can’t afford it.

    The application requires a $200 fee, plus the notarised “no work” pledge and letters from landlords and a mukhtar – a local government official – informing the government where a refugee lives. This can add up to $600, Safi said, and the average Syrian refugee in Lebanon makes $250 per month. The NRC estimates that 35 percent of refugees don’t approach the government because they can’t scrape together the cash.

    “Residency renewal requirements are prohibitive for Syrian refugees,” agreed UNHCR’s Sleiman, adding that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon fall under the poverty line.

    “Money has been an issue for a long time,” said Hala al-Helou, an official at the social affairs ministry, which handles refugee matters. But the government has no plans to scrap the fee. Instead, Helou said they’re looking to donors who might help front the money for refugees.

    Unintended outcomes

    Erratic application of the residency laws has made it so difficult for Syrian refugees to stay legally that they have had a perverse effect: the government wanted to keep tabs on refugees, but now they’ve just gone underground.

    Safi said the best advice she can offer refugees is “not to move around a lot.”

    “We’re in a situation where refugees can’t work, they can’t go back, they can’t leave their homes, [but] eventually they need to eat,” she said.

    George Gali, a researcher with the human rights monitoring group ALEF (Act for Human Rights) was of the same mind.

    "Lebanon is actually making its security situation worse because they are pushing more refugees off the grid by imposing strict conditions for residency," he said.


    "Refugees can't work, they can't go back, they can't leave their homes, but eventually they need to eat."


    Those who do manage to sign the pledge not to work are pushed “into a dire economic situation,” he added.

    Yusra and Safa, sisters-in-law from Hama in Syria who arrived in Lebanon three years ago with their families, are a classic case of what the law has wrought. They’re signed up with UNHCR but haven’t bothered approaching the government about residency. Everyone they know told them that without a sponsor it would be hopeless, and their attempts to find one have failed.

    Their husbands, Ziad and Ahmed, risk detention every day they go to work as day labourers.

    They wait on the sidewalk for someone to come by offering work, each bringing home LL 10,000-20,000 ($7-14) a day if they get a gig.

    Sometimes the truck comes almost daily. Sometimes no one comes for a week. “I’m afraid when they leave every morning,” said Safa. “What if they don’t come back? What will I do then?”


    Syrian refugees forced underground

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