The abrupt closure of the last official camp for displaced people in federal Iraq has seen hundreds of families with extremist links forced into potentially dangerous returns, without easy access to much-needed assistance, according to aid workers and camp residents.
According to UN figures, the camp – known as Jeddah 5 – was home to 1,566 people when it was closed in April. Almost two thirds of those camp residents were children.
Most had real or perceived ties to the so-called Islamic State group and had already transited through Jeddah 1, a “rehabilitation centre” for Iraqis who have come back from al-Hol. The northeast Syria camp is home to tens of thousands of people, both IS supporters and victims, and is known for extreme violence and poor conditions.
Aid workers and camp residents said the shuttering of Jeddah 5 – which began on 17 April with the arrival of Iraqi police and soldiers – was hasty and disorganised, raising concerns not just about their fate but also about any future returns from al-Hol.
"While the government’s decision to close Jeddah 5 was imminent, exact dates were not widely known, meaning information was neither shared by agencies with families in a timely or transparent manner, nor adequately incorporated into planning and mitigation measures by involved partners including the United Nations," reads a statement sent to The New Humanitarian by the Protection Consortium of Iraq – a group of international NGOs led by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) with the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) that seeks to advocate for the protection and “sustainable recovery” of displaced people.
"As a result,” the statement continues, “many families were returned with little notice to communities with ongoing or latent social cohesion concerns, or to areas where essential services do not exist or are inadequate."
Baghdad has been working to shut down camps for the past few years in an effort to encourage displaced people to go home, at the same time as the UN system in Iraq has been moving away from providing emergency aid – like the kind given in camps – and focusing instead on development.
But returning home can be extremely difficult: People often find they have no homes or jobs, and that their home towns are no longer safe – problems that are compounded for IS families. There are still 1.16 million people displaced across Iraq, down from around 6 million at the height of the 2014-2017 fight against IS. Most do not live in official camps, but around 15% still do – all in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
Several aid workers, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic, expressed concern about the returns process, saying there isn’t enough follow-up or support for people after they go home.
Kristin Perry, policy and advocacy manager at SEED Foundation, an NGO based in the northern Kurdish region that supports Yazidi survivors of IS and vulnerable individuals across the region, told The New Humanitarian it is still not clear whether the Iraqi government will fill the gap left by the UN’s shift away from emergency aid and prioritise sustaining a certain threshold of care for displaced people who are forced to go home. The strategy of incentivising returns by closing camps, she said, has meant that many returns “have not been broadly durable or sustainable”.
Perry also voiced concern for local residents, many of whom received little warning of the return of families with perceived IS-affiliation to their areas, and the layers of trauma and fear associated with their presence.
A sudden eviction
After years of speculation about the closure of Jeddah 5, Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement (MoMD) sent a letter on 23 March to the UN’s migration agency, IOM – which coordinated humanitarian aid in the camp – saying it would be shut in 60 days.
Later that month, the ministry told tribal leaders in the areas where most of the camp’s residents were originally from of their plans, asking them to accept the returnees back into the fold. This acceptance has long been key to a difficult and complicated returns process, given that many of the tribes’ home towns had been occupied by IS and they had fought hard against the extremist group.
“We were told in the camp that if we don't have a house to go to, we have to take our tents and find a place to live.”
But on 17 April, to the surprise of many, Iraqi police and soldiers suddenly entered Jeddah 5, announcing that the camp was being closed and ordering families to leave. Eighty-five families (368 people) who had already registered to leave departed that same day for their home towns and villages in a move facilitated by the IOM and coordinated with the MoMD. Over the next two days, the rest left hastily, however they could.
Even people who had planned to leave, like Umm Ali, 59, were caught off guard. She and 10 other family members had received clearance from local leaders to go back to their home town of Qayyarah, but she still found the process chaotic. Umm Ali said some families left on their own on the night of the announcement.
“We were told in the camp that if we don't have a house to go to, we have to take our tents and find a place to live,” she said, describing how some residents ended up spending the following days and weeks in tents they pitched near the camp.
The MoMD told the media that each household from Jeddah 5 would receive a grant of 1,500,000 Iraqi dinars [$1,030] for shelter. But Umm Ali said her family didn’t receive anything.
Jassim al-Attiyah, undersecretary of the MoMD, denied that Jeddah 5’s closure came as a surprise, although he acknowledged that many families left the camp without receiving a grant.
A difficult homecoming
When Umm Ali and her family got back to Qayyarah, they found their former home had been destroyed in an act of revenge for the family’s affiliation with IS. When The New Humanitarian visited in June, they were living in a sparsely furnished three-bedroom rental.
Umm Ali sat close to her 23-year-old daughter, Noor. Outside, two of her grandsons kicked a ball around a yard, avoiding freshly planted flowers in plastic buckets.
The young children had no memory of the family’s previous home, life in Qayyarah, or Umm Ali’s husband, who died of cancer. That’s because the family spent the last seven years living in IS territory, conflict zones, and camps, including the notorious al-Hol after all four of Umm Ali’s sons, including Noor’s husband, joined IS. Two died fighting, and the whereabouts of two others are unknown.
Umm Ali wanted to come back to Iraq. “The situation was dire in al-Hol. I submitted a voluntary request to return to Iraq and I was happy to come back to my country,” she explained. “I cried when I returned to Iraq [in 2022] and saw Mosul.”
The family spent two months in Jeddah 1’s “rehabilitation centre” before being moved to Jeddah 5 and eventually going back to Qayyarah. The transition has been anything but smooth.
“I cried when I returned to Iraq and saw Mosul.”
Umm Ali is worried about the potential of further retaliatory attacks against her family – while this sort of violence was a bigger problem shortly after the group was defeated and the wounds were fresher, attacks do still happen. She said they still haven’t received any official aid – from NGOs, the UN, or the government – since leaving Jeddah 5.
Despite the family’s links to IS, locals have been helpful. “Kind people help us with the rent, because we don’t have enough to cover living expenses,” she explained. Other people have pitched in to pay their electricity too, but they are often not sure where their next meal will come from.
As a family of only women who were not able to finish their education because they came of age under IS, job opportunities are limited. “When my family members joined IS, it was their choice, and the path they chose was not our will,” Umm Ali said, her face turning serious. “If my sons had not joined IS, we would still live in our [now destroyed] house, and my daughters would have completed their education.”
A widespread problem
Other families who left Jeddah 5, by choice or by force, have found themselves in a similar situation.
According to the Protection Consortium, 60% of families in the camp were headed by women – many adult men were IS members, and are either dead or imprisoned. This can mean it is harder to find jobs and find safety. Previous research in the camp indicated that only 6% said they could buy food with their own money. Four in five said their homes were either damaged or destroyed, and many no longer even owned their homes or said other people were living in them illegally. Some have been rejected by their communities and have been unable to go home at all.
On the day Jeddah 5 closed, the UN’s Office of the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq issued a statement calling for the government of Iraq to ensure the safety and well-being of all of the families who had to leave the camp, expressing concern about the lack of adequate notice and preparation for both returnees and the communities they were going back to.
Four months on, those concerns remain, especially for the approximately 300 households who were forced to leave with no notice.
In early June, the same office told The New Humanitarian that a “significant number of families” who were forced to leave Jeddah 5 could not go home and “are currently experiencing yet another displacement: many are living in limbo in makeshift shelters, having resorted to moving to temporary locations where they are now at risk of again having to move. The physical safety of some of the families and the conditions for sustainable reintegration for most of the affected families require urgent attention.”
The UN later said it is helping many of these families with a combination of legal assistance, emergency cash aid, and advocacy with the government and local tribes.
Even where families like Umm Ali’s have managed to settle in their former towns and villages, many don’t have the identification or other documents – often lost in battles or in flight – that they need to register for school or other social services. For example, Jeddah 5 was closed shortly before end of year exams, so unless families had time to collect the necessary documents from schools, any progress children made that year is now lost.
The UN transition and continued al-Hol returns
Since the beginning of this year, the UN has moved away from providing emergency assistance to displaced people, saying it is the responsibility of the Iraqi government and local authorities.
Meanwhile, despite the difficulties people with family ties to IS have had in restarting their lives, Iraq is continuing its UN-backed push to bring even more Iraqis home from al-Hol, with al-Attiyah from the MoDM promising that those who have not been found guilty of crimes will be reintegrated into society, alongside engagement from tribal leaders.
So far, the people who have come back from al-Hol have done so on a voluntary basis, going through some sort of rehabilitation process in Jeddah 1 before returning home. While previously they would have passed through Jeddah 5, that is no longer the case.
It is not clear exactly how many people this includes, but the head of the UN’s mission in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, said in a mid-June speech that 1,382 households had gone from al-Hol to Jeddah 1. She also said that a “further 837 households have departed to their areas of origin or return” – a number that presumably includes those forced out of Jeddah 5.
“We want to bring them back so that they will not turn towards extremist groups.
After the defeat of IS, “there was a refusal by the host communities and tribes to return these families,” al-Attiyah said. “But there is a plan with the prime minister's directive to resolve this matter, because it is a dangerous thing to have these families outside Iraq and they can be used by extremist parties. In my opinion, I do not find that these families pose any threat,” he added, warning that their movements would still be monitored.
For local residents, including tribal leaders, feelings are mixed. In Umm Ali’s home of Qayyarah, some people have stepped up to help, but it is a touchy subject.
A young member of Qayyarah’s most prominent tribes, who requested not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, said he didn’t welcome the returnees, even though he had sympathy for their children. He noted that IS executed three of his uncles in one day, and that he had lost many more relatives in a similar fashion.
“When I think of the children in IS families, I wonder what they did to deserve being persecuted by the state and the tribes,” he told The New Humanitarian. “We are afraid for them of being attacked by families who lost members of their family to IS.”
His uncle, a powerful tribal leader who also asked not to be named, was slightly more accepting of returns. “People whose hands are stained with the blood of innocent people are not allowed to return, but the return of their family members to our society is better,” he said. “We want to bring them back so that they will not turn towards extremist groups.”
Umm Ali and her family are doing their best to look towards the future, but it’s not easy.
“I feel sad about the life I lived,” Noor said. “After IS, our lives changed dramatically… Our life became full of sadness, and I was happy when we were told that we could go back to Iraq from al-Hol.”
She said she doesn’t talk to her young children about their family members who joined the extremist group: “I want the young ones who remain in the family to continue their education and focus on their future.”
With reporting support from Ahmed al-Salem in Qayyarah, Iraq.
Edited by Annie Slemrod.