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Atran Youkhana / Zeljko Crncic

Displaced in Their Own Country

A lot has been written on the rise of the “Islamic State” (IS) and the thousands of people who have left their homes to escape the violence. While a lot of the discussion has focused on international refugees and how to deal with international migration, people tend to forget that many of the displaced have stayed in their home country, seeking refuge with relatives or friends in less troubled areas where they do not have to fear persecution. Some villages have doubled in size since the conflict began. What is life like for Iraq’s internal refugees?

In 2014, the situation in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq took a dramatic turn. Up to this point in time, Iraqi Kurdistan had been relatively peaceful and was enjoying an economic boom brought about by oil production. But the advance of the “Islamic state”, which had begun in June, completely changed conditions there. During the same month, the terrorists occupied the large city of Mosul with almost no resistance. In August, they began an offensive on the Kurdish-controlled area further north. IS currently rules almost 6 million people throughout its area of influence.

Thousands of Yazidis were under siege the Sinjar Mountains. The Islamists continued to advance and were only stopped by a rescue operation involving Kurdish troops and American air attacks. Just as the year was drawing to a close, Kurdish troops recorded substantial territorial gains, which significantly weakened IS in the Sinjar region.

The regional authorities are faced with a task of enormous proportions: finding a place for all the displaced persons to live and offering them essential services.

As such, the current overall situation in the Kurdistan region is better than it was at the start of the IS offensive in summer. The immediate danger of new attacks from the Islamists seems to have been averted, or at least their progress has been brought to a halt for now. Yet IS remains a serious military and political danger for both the central Iraq government and the autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Social consequences

The terrorist group’s growing strength has had equally grave consequences on both a social and humanitarian level. The battles fought in recent months have kicked off a huge wave of migration, and the population of Iraqi Kurdistan has swelled from 5 to 6.5 million people. Schools and other public buildings have been made available to house refugees. In the province of Dohuk alone, around 450 schools were being used as shelters for a longer time. The regional authorities are faced with a task of enormous proportions: finding a place for all the displaced persons to live and offering them essential services.

The number of inhabitants in most Christian villages has also doubled since August.

Christian Pastor Daniel, who fled Basheeqa with his family and now lives in the Christian village Sarsink around a one hour drive north of Dohuk, reports: “Before the war broke out, around 250 families lived here. This number has more than doubled since August.” This is the case for most other Christian villages too.

Refugees are often unable to return to their home villages. A large percentage of these villages are now occupied by IS, or people are too afraid to return to the combat zone in significant numbers. Here we must distinguish between those areas attacked, plundered and then cleared by IS; people are still afraid to return to these areas. And on the other hand there are villages near the front lines of the IS territory where parts of the population have returned already.

The only options he sees are: “back to Sinjar or to Europe!”

Dawood, an internal Yazidi refugee who currently lives in a tent in the Khanke camp in the greater Dohuk metropolitan area, does not want to stay there forever. The only options he sees are: “back to Sinjar or to Europe!”

On a December 2014 visit to Khanke, around 270 tents were visible directly at the entrance, while the rest of the camp had developed into a small city similar to the Domiz camp just a few kilometres away. Domiz was set up by the UNHCR in cooperation with the Kurdish government to house Syrian refugees.Currently 65,000 displaced Syrians live there. Khanke is home to around 74,000 Yazidi refugees.

Conditions for children and young adults

While all segments of the population have been severely affected by the war, children and young adults are among the most vulnerable refugees. They are harmed on a physical, psychological and social level. Many do not have access to school and no regular schedule. They have been torn out of the structure of their daily lives and now have to somehow survive the winter with their families under precarious conditions in different parts of northern Iraq.

Many fled with their parents and sought the relative safety of the refugee camps or are living with private citizens. But some children and young people were separated from their families and are now on their own after being driven out of their homes.

Christian refugees from Basheeqa, for example, have reported families being torn apart by flight and displacement. The Yazidi families in Khanke tell a similar story. The women from these families, daughters and wives, have either fallen into the hands of IS or have probably been sold to slave markets. Fifteen families live in one half-finished house in Khanke, for example. They sought shelter in the building, which had been uninhabited until the displacements. A total of 13 women of differing ages from these families are still in the hands of IS. It is almost impossible to get accurate numbers, but information from varying sources indicates that around 1,000 women have suffered the same fate. Yezidi informants also estimate a similarly high number.

Only a very few still hope they may be able to return to their homes one day.

Some internal refugee families are now planning to send their healthiest sons to Europe to seek asylum, since they are the only ones likely to survive the journey. They live in the hope that their children might one day be able to bring them to Europe as well. Only very few still hope they may be able to return to their homes one day.

Caring for and educating children and young adults is a serious problem both in and outside the refugee camp. Offering this group sufficient health care services is also a huge challenge that cannot be adequately met. Too many young people have been traumatised by what they have gone through. Their experience as refugees has also turned them into survivalists, but they need a safe place to live to regain their sense of inner security.

In addition to emergency aid, psychosocial support is also desperately needed to stabilise and bolster these children and young adults. A range of international organisations and foundations have set up “child friendly spaces” in the refugee communities and mobile teams go into the camps to offer medical and psychosocial services. The need is great though, while resources are limited. So far this assistance has only been available to a small proportion of those who need it.

But minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians have fared the worst: IS declared them the enemy since they are not Sunnites.

Living as a minority

For centuries the Near East has been a mosaic of different religious and ethnic groups. This also applies to Kurdish northern Iraq. Here Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians, Turkmen, Arabs and others have lived with and next to one another. The IS invasion and the violence it has brought with it has effected all Iraqis. But minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians have fared the worst: IS declared them the enemy since they are not Sunnites. Members of Christian communities who lived in the territories taken over by the terrorists were given the choice of converting to the religion defined by IS, paying a tax, fleeing or being killed. Christians who lived in the area around Mosul received a letter to this effect. Yazidis were not even presented with this “choice”.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, it is somewhat easier to adhere to a different religion than in other regions. Christians, Yezidis and others are allowed to practice their beliefs largely unhindered, and participate in public life. Arguments are more likely to break out when it comes to questions of property boundaries, and some groups are working towards Kurdish dominance at the expense of the other ethnic groups.

No light at the end of the tunnel?

The situation in the region is still precarious. A purely military victory over IS seems unlikely. The air attacks damaged the organisation very little. If the bombs hit civilians, they can also have the exact opposite effect and encourage the Sunnite population to sympathise with the group. It is also unclear to what extent Kurdish and Iraqi troops are capable of overpowering the highly motivated IS fighters on the ground. So for many, the option mentioned by the Yezidi refugee Dawood remains very attractive: They want to go to Europe.

Photo by Alberto Hugo Rojas (flickr)

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