Living in the Shadows: Iraq’s Remaining Displaced Families
Thousands of families with real or perceived affiliations to the Islamic State remain scattered across Iraq, their future unknown. The Iraqi government’s unofficial policy of collective punishment is putting the future of Iraq at risk and could drive further instability. Approximately 300,000 internally displaced Iraqis perceived to have some degree of affiliation with the Islamic State — such as a relative who joined — have no physical home to return to, lack civil documentation, or cannot exercise their basic rights. Their only options are to seek refuge in informal sites on the outskirts of urban centers where they can become invisible, precariously remaining in the few camps that are temporarily still open, or to live on the edges of other areas, blocked from returning home. In addition to the government’s discriminatory practices, social stigma also hinders this subpopulation from reintegrating into Iraqi society. Even children are not spared this punishment and are being ostracized from their communities because of the alleged crimes of their fathers.
Starting in 2018, the Iraqi government signaled its intention to close all displacement camps across Iraq. This was politically motivated to push families to vote from their area of origin and boost voter participation, so that the scheduled elections could take place on time — which also happened to be shortly after the government’s defeat of the Islamic State. This sparked a major outcry from humanitarian agencies, as needs were still high and conditions in the country were not ready for displaced populations to survive on their own: Unexploded ordnance remained in many areas, reconstruction of damaged infrastructure was slow, and access to basic services like electricity and water varied. Still, by 2020, the government had implemented the camp closure policy and forcibly pushed out over 100,000 camp residents. Now, four years after Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State, the Iraqi government is determined to wrap up humanitarian efforts and move Iraq into the post-conflict phase, with a focus on development to attract more foreign investment. However, many families with perceived Islamic State affiliations are stuck in limbo, without any means to end their displacement. Only when this subpopulation’s needs are met and they can return home or live in a place of their choosing will their displacement end. And only then will Iraq be on the path for durable recovery and a stable future.
As an already stigmatized population, some families with perceived affiliations to the Islamic State were met with violence and had to flee again when they attempted to return home beginning in 2019. According to the head of an Iraqi nongovernmental organization in Mosul, a mukhtar (local tribal leader) from Salamiyeh called him after being pushed out of one of the closed camps. “His tribe is accused of joining [the Islamic State] in Baaj so, in retaliation, the security forces destroyed his home, his town does not have any functioning services, and the Yazidi militia is close by,” he reported. “The old man was crying because he did not know what to do or where to go.” As seen in numerous cases, internally displaced persons are caught between policies forcing people out of camps and the social stigma and threat of retaliatory violence blocking them from returning to their homes. This form of collective punishment, whereby if one family member is accused of having joined the Islamic State, the rest of the family is shunned, has resulted in thousands of people resettling in underdeveloped areas on the outskirts of cities without access to assistance.
The state also plays a role in this collective punishment. People accused or suspected of aiding the Islamic State are put on a government-controlled security list — how or why people are added to the list is opaque — and people on the list have limited recourse for appeal. However, security forces mandate that people on these security lists perform a series of legal and non-legal procedures collectively referred to as tabriya’a or denouncement. Tabriya’a, rooted in tribal practice in parts of Iraq, has been incorporated into the formal legal system: An individual files a criminal complaint denouncing his or her male relative for joining or aiding the Islamic State. Aid agencies interviewed for this article described how tabriya’a — even before applying for a security clearance — is now a precondition for families to apply for a range of administrative procedures, including obtaining civil IDs. Many men and women feel pressured, mostly by local security actors, to do tabriya’a because it is their only way to rebuild their lives. However, some women refuse to do it because they do not want to betray their husbands and sons or fear retaliation from their husband’s family. Many women are also reluctant to do tabriya’a because interactions with the security forces and courts can be exploitative. Additionally, there is no guarantee that women who do tabriya’a will be accepted back into their communities because it is only one factor of many that determine whether the local community will accept them. Tabriya’a is one more obstacle that this subpopulation in Iraq has to overcome before they can return home, integrate into their current area of displacement, or resettle.
State Documents Inaccessible
Access to their state-mandated identification documents would facilitate a solution to the dilemma that many internally displaced Iraqis face. Civil documentation is the tool Iraqi citizens use to exercise their rights, and undocumented children and families become dependent on humanitarian aid to stay alive. Many Iraqi children are able to obtain their civil IDs when both parents are present. However, children of families who have perceived affiliations with the Islamic State cannot get a security clearance and an ID unless their mother completes the tabriya’a process. These children, therefore, face insurmountable challenges in obtaining civil IDs. Without civil documentation, children cannot go to public schools and families are unable to get formal work or receive government benefits.
Despite the mounting obstacles, families understand that their life is suspended without these documents, and many embark on the arduous journey to try to obtain them. Sarah (not her real name), a mother of two, was married to an Islamic State member who disappeared during the conflict and is presumed dead. She does not know where his body is, so she is unable to obtain a death certificate. Her children had no birth certificates and essentially did not exist in the eyes of the Iraqi state. She explains:
I want my children to grow up and dream to be whatever they want. I do not want them to just be seen as children of [the Islamic State]. My husband’s body is missing so I had to pay $1,500 to a coroner for a fake autopsy report. My in-laws had to go to the court to testify that my children are from their son, but my mother in-law would not come because she is afraid of the courts. I’m trying to get my kids passports, but their names are still on the security database, and I do not have any money left to pay more bribes.
Sarah had to pay over $4,000 in bribes and it took her over two years to be able to obtain IDs for herself and her children.
Many stigmatized children are growing up in the shadows, away from schools and with limited access to education. This could potentially be a significant problem for Iraq in the near future. Iraqi mental-health workers fear that the social marginalization of these children, combined with the material deprivation of living in poverty, in makeshift shelters, could create the conditions for new extremist groups to emerge.
Leaving these grievances unaddressed could reignite conflict and help sow destabilizing tensions. After experiencing the horrors of the Islamic State, Iraqi society seems fractured, with no consensus on how to deal with these issues. Some communities accept these families while others attempt to keep them out. The Iraqi government seems to have no comprehensive plan on how to reintegrate families perceived as affiliated with Islamic State.
The longer this persists, the more children grow up in isolation, without the resources to be contributing Iraqi citizens. When eight-year-old Ahmed (not his real name) from Salamiyeh was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he responded, “My dream is to work and buy weapons to kill all the Iraqi military because they will not let me study and keep saying my father is Daesh.” In no society are children responsible for the crimes of their parents. Iraq seems to be an exception. Without education, children’s imaginations will be limited to the violence and oppression they experienced.
Shelter Remains Out of Reach
Many households are living in impoverished areas because their homes were destroyed, and they cannot access compensation to rebuild. Without permanent shelter, there is no sustainable end to the displacement of these families. In 2009, Iraq adopted Law 20, “Compensating the Victims of Military Operations, Military Mistakes and Terrorist Operations/Actions,” also known as the compensation law. The law is intended to compensate anyone for loss of life, injury, and damage to work, study, or property that occurred during both the U.S.-led conflict and the anti-Islamic State campaign. Legally, everyone who experienced such loss is eligible for compensation. However, the Iraqi government has essentially denied all claims by families with perceived affiliations to the Islamic State. If the government confirms that one family member, regardless of the degree, joined the Islamic State, the whole family is denied. Moreover, the compensation process is corrupt. Many of those that have received compensation had to rely on political connections, which families with perceived affiliations often do not have. Additionally, without the financial means to pay bribes, many do not even bother filing a claim, and those that do wait long periods of time before receiving any acknowledgment.
With no formal transitional justice mechanism and no government-led official reintegration strategy, compensation and reparations for all Iraqis are key components in ending their displacement and helping put Iraq on a path of post-conflict healing. Appearing to help anyone who might have helped the Islamic State at all is politically unpopular in Iraq, so few agencies have been willing and able to respond to the needs of families with perceived affiliations with the Islamic State. Nor have many international organizations targeted this subpopulation with specialized assistance, fearing the reaction of local communities and authorities. Additionally, Iraqi nongovernmental organizations do not support these families because they worry about being targeted by the security forces and accused of being sympathetic to terrorists. In 2018, some Iraqi lawyers trying to represent individuals suspected of being affiliated with the Islamic State were detained by security forces and accused of supporting terrorism. This caused a chilling effect and made many Iraqi organizations hesitate before providing assistance to communities with perceived affiliations.
International nongovernmental organizations are safeguarded from most of the harassment and intimidation exercised by security forces and, therefore, are able to take on this work despite the perceived risk. However, with Iraqi nongovernmental organizations unable to cater to the needs of this population, without the support of international agencies, these internally displaced Iraqis will likely not be able to access basic services necessary for their survival.
Despite the policies to close camps and transition Iraq toward the development phase, it is important to ensure families with perceived Islamic State affiliations do not fall through the cracks. These citizens need a sustainable end to their displacement with a permanent home, income-generating jobs, civil IDs, and access to schooling for their children. They should be granted their basic rights as Iraqis. If the Iraqi government and international community ignore Iraqis with perceived affiliations with the Islamic State, then Iraq will inevitably enter another cycle of violence, with more Iraqis suffering as a result. In the words of Sarah: “We are also victims of the Islamic State. … I could have never prevented my husband from joining the Islamic State. Our children should not be paying for the crimes of their fathers.”
Basma Alloush is the senior policy and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council USA and a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.