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In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), I have had the honour to carry out an official visit to Iraq from 15 to 23 February 2020 at the invitation of the Government of the Republic of Iraq. My visit followed those of my predecessors Chaloka Beyani in 2015 and Walter Kaelin in 2010.
During my visit, I consulted widely with Government representatives both at the national, regional and local levels, United Nations agencies, civil society, humanitarian and development actors, and other key national and international stakeholders. I also met with IDPs in and out of camp settings, including women and children, who told me about their situations, challenges and hopes for solutions to their problems, and many of whom had been displaced multiple times, had tried to return to their areas of origin, but ended up back in IDP camps or informal settlements. I travelled to Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul and visited IDPs in Erbil, Ninewa and Dohuk. My objective was to gather first-hand information on the human rights situation of IDPs in Iraq, their assistance needs and protection concerns, and progress towards durable solutions.
The findings presented here represent only my preliminary observations and do not reflect the full range of issues that were brought to my attention, nor do they reflect all the initiatives on the part of the Government or its humanitarian and development partners. Over the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the information I have received from all my meetings as well as written documents, in order to develop my full country visit report. I will be presenting the country report on my mission to Iraq to the United Nations Human Rights Council and to the Republic of Iraq in June 2020 in Geneva.
I take this opportunity to sincerely thank the Government of the Republic of Iraq for the invitation to visit and the high-level cooperation it extended to me and my delegation at the Federal, regional and local levels that included the Governorates as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government. I also thank the Government for its full respect of the independence of my mandate in accordance with the UN terms of reference for special rapporteurs and experts. The willingness to engage with my mandate is testament to the political will to address displacement issues in Iraq and must be commended.
Firstly, let me say a few words about my United Nations mandate on the human rights of internally displaced persons, implementation of which is based on pertinent resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. I take my guidance from the international human rights standards relating to those persons who have to flee their homes but remain within the borders of their countries. In particular, the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, adopted in 1998, establishes that internal displacement can be caused by a wide range of factors including conflict, human rights violations, violence, natural disasters and development projects. My approach is further informed by existing international guidance in regard to humanitarian and development approaches to protection of IDPs and durable solutions.
Internal displacement in Iraq
Iraq has experienced several waves of internal displacement. For decades, conflict, sectarian violence, and forced population movements of Iraqis and targeting specific ethnic and religious groups have led to forced displacement within the country. However,
the displacement crisis caused by the 2014-2017 conflict with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was one of huge proportions, resulting in the displacement of about 6 million people within the borders of Iraq. Since the declared defeat of "ISIL" in December 2017, over 4 million people have returned to their places of origin, a development in which the policies of the Government of Iraq have been instrumental. This is generally important progress in the right direction that needs to be further complemented with building the conditions to ensure that they can resume normal lives. Absent these conditions, a large number of these returnees risk falling back into secondary displacement or engendering new displacement.
An estimated 1.5 million people, many of whom have undergone multiple displacements, remain in internal displacement, without hopes for a solution any time soon. Meanwhile, living in or outside camps, many of them face dire living conditions and insecurity, struggling to meet basic needs, and experience trauma and mental health challenges. The remaining IDPs comprise of different groups that require targeted approaches to remove obstacles to their durable solutions.
Over-all response to internal displacement
The Government of Iraq is commended for having taken a number of measures to address internal displacement in many aspects. Institutionally, the establishment of a Ministry of Migration and Displacement (MOMD) is important to ensure a dedicated Ministry to such issues and relevant to the mandate's recommendation of a focal point in the executive branch of government. The Office of the Prime Minister and other Ministries such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice, among others, have instituted offices and specialised units and/or programmes to ensure attention to the myriad aspects of internal displacement. These are complemented by the setting up of over-all coordinating mechanisms such as the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Center (JCMC) within the Federal Government and the Joint Crisis Coordination Center within the Kurdistan Regional Government to coordinate crisis response and information management. Issue-based Committees such as the Prime Minister's "Co-Existence and Communal Peace Committee" and the "Governorate Return Committees" at Governorate level, have been helpful for targeted responses. There also exist different relevant legislation as well as policy directives that aim to address internal displacement issues as they develop over time. One example is the establishment of a number of compensation schemes for victims of the armed conflict, including IDPs, such as a scheme to compensate for property destruction or damage, which currently nevertheless needs to be upscaled in scope, outreach to those in need and actual payments. All these, and others, needs to be brought together in a unified approach.
I also take note of the essential roles of the Governorates as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government in hosting the millions of IDPs that Iraq has had and the remaining IDPs. Throughout my visit, I have seen the commendable willingness at this level to provide a physical place of refuge for the displaced populations from other parts of the country for these many years, despite the heavy burden on their own resources, which certainly requires more support from the Federal Government and from the international community. At the same time, local integration is strongly rejected by the authorities in hosting areas under the argument that this would change their demographics. Meanwhile, conditions for their safe, informed, voluntary and dignified return are not necessarily in place in Governorates of places of origin.
Issues of concern
The human rights situation of IDPs in Iraq is not an isolated issue that can be put aside while other pressing matters are addressed. Rather, it is at the core of the challenges that the country faces, and calls for an immediate step-up in various efforts for the promotion of humanitarian assistance, development approaches, and social cohesion and reconciliation. There is no true recovery possible for Iraq without addressing the human rights situation of IDPs, and the achievement of durable solutions for these IDPs requires that the country addresses its long-standing and deeply entrenched sectarian tensions. Moreover, any sustainable response to the internal displacement situation in Iraq, and in any other country for that matter, requires accountability and the rule of law under international human rights. The following is a non-exhaustive list of areas of concerns that have come to my attention during the visit:
1.The assistance needs of remaining IDPs are acute.
IDPs in and out of camp settings lack (or have limited) access to food, housing, healthcare, education, and livelihood opportunities. The quality of service provision in camps vary significantly, as different camps are managed by different organizations. However, even in camps with higher standards, the level of poverty is such that IDPs reported selling in the local market the food and non-food items they receive as their only source of cash. I have also seen sub-standard shelter in the IDP camps and many of them urgently need upgrading of materials, especially in camps with long-term IDP populations who cannot yet return. With secondary displacement mainly by those IDPs who have not been able to return to their places or origin, there is also a risk that these IDPs will remain under the radar and further slide into economic impoverishment and social marginalisation. It is important that IDPs who leave camps in attempted return but wish to return to the camps afterwards, are accepted and registered for support and assistance. I met one group of IDPs who resides in crowded conditions in a place within one city and whose shelter do not meet dignified living standards.
During my bilateral and group interviews with IDPs in camps, I have met IDP mothers with disabled and sick children who require medicinal prescriptions and treatment outside of camps, who have not been able to leave the camps due to both lack of documentation and transportation support. I highly suggest the implementation of the Guidelines on the Inclusion of disabilities in Humanitarian Action particularly as relevant to the IDPs in Iraq.
2.Sexual and gender-based violence
In the context of my visit, I also received
disturbing reports of sexual and gender-based violence against internally displaced women and girls, including inside camps. Survival sex and early marriage have been reported as negative coping mechanisms for IDP families living in poverty and deprived of any source of income or livelihood opportunities. Women whose families are perceived as associated to ISIL such as widows of alleged "ISIL" members have reportedly been subjected to revenge sexual violence and harassment. Internally displaced women and girls from Yazidi communities who survived "ISIL" captivity and sexual exploitation and abuse require more dedicated support for trauma, healing and rehabilitation. In this regard, I take positive note of the efforts of the Iraqi Government to provide a Law on Support to Yazidi Women Survivors in the context of transitional justice reparations and encourage its expansion to other survivors of gender-based violence during the conflict. Meanwhile, Yazidis who have children born of sexual violence are reportedly not accepted back by communities of origin unless they leave behind the child born of a non-Yazidi father. This may require more mediation and social cohesion efforts at local community levels.
An issue that came up prominently throughout my visit was the
numerous barriers faced by the remaining IDPs to obtain and renew civil documentation. The Government of Iraq, the United Nations agencies and agencies have in fact come together to give attention to this pressing concern. I cannot stress enough how fundamental civil documentation is to the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights, in terms of IDPs accessing basic services, education, healthcare and social security benefits, housing, land and property rights, and freedom of movement. According to the Iraqi law, civil documents should be obtained in one's place of origin, to which IDPs are often unable to travel. The initiative of the Government jointly with humanitarian partners to send mobile units to a number of IDP camps is highly commendable and constitutes an example of good practice to be followed. I encourage the Government and partners to continue this undertaking so as to ensure that as many IDP camps and locations hosting IDPs as possible are visited, and taking measures to ensure that the service be provided to all IDPs in need, without discrimination. The expansion of the coverage of such commendable documentation efforts, to beyond the civil identity and national registry, and to include birth certificates, for example, is likewise necessary. Moreover, facilitating obtention of documentation for IDPs by cutting through the layers of bureaucracy that are normally applied to non-IDP populations, is a practice done elsewhere and may be seriously considered in Iraq.
4.Ethnic and religious minorities
Ethnic and religious minorities have been displaced during the 2014-2017 conflict due to persecution suffered in territories controlled by "ISIL", and now struggle to return to their homes. These minorities have suffered enormous losses and violations, and most of them currently remain in camps for many years now. In their areas of return, they speak of destruction of their homes and physical and social conditions that do not allow them to resume their lives in areas where they came from. Of very special concern is the group of Yazidis who have suffered violations that appear to constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes. In addition to their humanitarian needs including livelihoods, shelter, psychosocial support, legal documentation particularly for the children – all alternatives to their durable solutions must be considered with the communities themselves.
5.Perceived "ISIL" affiliated families
On the other hand,
the situation offamilies who are perceived as affiliated to ISIL is also very concerning. These families face widespread discrimination by authorities and communities and have been subject to threats, harassment and violence, both in areas of displacement and in areas of origin. Under the argument that they constitute a security threat, women and children have been imposed movement restrictions, deprived of basic services including health care and education, and have been widely discriminated by authorities and communities. Not welcome in hosting Governorates, nor wanted back in their areas of origin, these families have been trapped in camps for years without a solution in sight.
In addition, security clearances are required and often denied to members of families perceived as affiliated to extremist groups. Relatives of alleged "ISIL" members have been asked to disavow their family members so that they can be granted security clearance. Inasmuch as civil documentation is a constitutional right of all Iraqi citizens, delinking the requirement to obtain security clearance from procedures in accessing civil documentation will allow the implementation of this constitutional right.
An issue worth studying in regard to this group of people vis-a-vis returns is related to those who have been prosecuted for affiliation with extremist groups in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and, following their acquittal or after having served their sentence are at risk of being arrested and tried twice for the same crime if they return to their areas of origin in the Federal Iraq. The Federal Iraq and the KRI have separate judicial systems with their own counterterrorism laws, and the lack of coordination between both systems leads to a risk of double jeopardy.
freedom of movement
I am deeply concerned by the
restrictions on freedom of movement imposed on IDPs.
Security clearance must be obtained to travel through checkpoints, which is usually denied to families perceived as affiliated to ISIL, hampering their access to cities to access services, renew civil documents in the area of origin or return. I was told that in some instances, IDPs have faced severe restrictions on their movement, not being allowed to leave camps and that they require escorts to be able to get medical or legal assistance. While authorities argue that such restrictions are for the safety of IDPs and communities, IDPs have the right to remain in camps or leave without duress and to circulate freely within the country.
Among the most tragic legacies of the ISIL conflict I have witnessed during my visit is the situation of
internally displaced children – a generation traumatized by violence, deprived of education and opportunities. Many internally displaced children work to contribute to the family income, with children from female-headed households and several are unaccompanied or were separated from their family members. I met IDP orphans and noted their social marginalisation from the other children.
I was very concerned at the extent to which internally displaced children in and out of camp settings are deprived of education. Unable to enrol in the formal education system due to lack of civil documentation or to restrictions of movement, a generation of marginalized children is emerging. Many missed years of education due to the conflict and are now too old to be admitted into the formal school system, or lack appropriate classes to catch up with the missed content. Children who lived in areas controlled by "ISIL" were particularly affected in their access to education during the conflict, and now face additional barriers to enrol due to discrimination and inability to obtain civil documentation and move outside camps. When education is available, the number of teachers and the classroom time are often insufficient. In camp settings, teachers are usually volunteers from the community who, although well-intentioned, lack the required qualifications. A 10-year-old IDP girl told me she dreams of becoming a doctor when she grows up, but that she wishes she could have more than two hours of classes a day. In turn, her friend said she cannot go to school because she has no identification documents, so she has no dreams at all.
Of great concern, the issuance of birth certificates for children requires the presence of the father in court or the presentation of the father's death certificate. As a result, internally displaced children who lost or are separated from their fathers but do not hold a death certificate, or who were born of sexual violence, are unable to obtain birth certificates and other documents. Without civil documentation, they cannot enrol in formal education, access healthcare and basic services, apply for security clearances to move in the country, or exercise their rights as children. Children who remained in areas controlled by "ISIL" often do not have birth certificates or have certificates issued that are not recognized by the Government of Iraq. By ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Government of Iraq has undertaken to ensure access to birth registration and documentation for all Iraqi children. The requirement of the presence of the father in court or the presentation of a death certificate should be lifted, enabling Iraqi mothers to directly confer nationality to their children under these circumstances.
Internally displaced children whose family members are perceived to be affiliated to ISIL, or who are themselves perceived to be affiliated to ISIL (which is the case especially with some adolescents), are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and are at risk of arbitrary detention. They face discrimination and obstacles in obtaining civil documents and accessing services.
8.Humanitarian access and funding:
Humanitarian organizations have been facing increasing challenges to access programme locations and provide assistance to those in need. To move personnel and supplies in Iraq and across the frequent checkpoints, national and international NGOs and UN staff are required to obtain multiple access letters from different actors. Obtaining these letters is a cumbersome, lengthy and fragmented process. During the 2019, the process became more complex and fragmented, with Governorate and District-level authorities asking for additional access letters from local actors. For example, in Ninewa, up to nine different letters were required in November 2019. The requirements are different in each location, and access letters may be valid for a single movement, having to be renewed each time. Humanitarian access has worsened further since December 2019, when the government suspended the issuance of access letters to NGOs, significantly impacting their ability to operate in the country and provide assistance to populations in camps and areas of high return. An agreement for an interim solution has reportedly been reached in February 2020, although NGO operations are not yet moving to full capacity. National access letters are essential for humanitarian actors to reach internally displaced persons and returnees in need. I call on the Government of Iraq to ensure unhindered humanitarian access to IDPs in need.
On funding and support, the overall level of the humanitarian response in Iraq has been remarkable, with 85% of the population targeted by the 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) actually reached. Given the remaining humanitarian requirements post-2019 as related to the IDPs, I call on the international community and donors to fulfil the requirements of the 2020 HRP.
Based on recent experiences of camp closures in 2019, any further
closure of camps would greatly benefit from a closer coordination and cooperation among the governorates, and with partners including camp management, and from adequate and sufficient notice given to the IDPs. The closures should strictly relate to voluntary and dignified returns and should eschew returns to locations with conditions that would result to secondary displacement of IDPs. It should be recalled that returns have to be safe, informed, voluntary and dignified and that IDPs have the right to decide on their durable solutions (return, integration or settlement elsewhere).
Longer-term activities founded on the humanitarian-development nexus should be strengthened to foster durable solutions. Of the 1.5 million IDPs remaining in Iraq, 70 % have been displaced for longer than three years. Unlocking
protracted displacement in Iraq is a real challenge. The Government of Iraq announced the intention for all IDPs to return home by the end of the year. However,
numerousobstacles remain for their return.
Destroyed or damaged housing and other issues related to housing, land and property, such as lack of documentation to prove tenure, remain a significant obstacle for IDPs to return to their place of origin. While there is a mechanism to claim compensation for damaged properties, IDPs are most often unaware. Those who apply face challenges such as lack of supporting documentation and unprocessed applications. Contamination of lands by mines has also hindered returns and government efforts must be enhanced in cooperation with the United Nations and organisations with the necessary expertise. Restrictions on freedom of movement due to security clearance requirements to cross checkpoints severely hampers the return of IDPs. Lack of livelihood opportunities is a major challenge for return, with female-headed families particularly affected. During group discussions with women in both in and out of camp settings, they shared their experiences of living in poverty and stressed that one of their main needs is to receive the tools and training to start an income-generating activity. Some women told me that they could not leave the camps because they relied solely on humanitarian assistance to survive. Solid income-generating schemes for women would have the potential to address not only their basic needs and to reduce their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, but will also foster their options for durable solutions.
Reconciliation, social cohesion and development are essential elements for achieving durable solutions for the remaining 1.5 million IDPs, as well as for preventing further waves of displacement. I am encouraged by the Iraqi Government's recognition of the need for reconciliation and social cohesion in the aftermath of the conflict and take note of the emerging local and contextually based joint approaches under Government, UN and NGOs that foster a consolidated approach to peacebuilding, economic recovery and livelihoods, and physical and social rehabilitation. I am also encouraged by a few new agreements among governorates and those between the KRG and Ninewa governorate in regard to return to disputed territories. Stabilisation efforts should be seriously upscaled especially in the village and localities of return, with the inclusion of civilian structures for the rule of law and accountability. Indeed, a national peace and reconciliation plan should be developed, addressing issues related to reintegration, reparation and justice, and ensuring the participation of IDPs in decisions affecting them. Recovery efforts should dedicate special attention to children, and increase investment in quality education and mental health and psychosocial support. Most, if not all, of these efforts require the development support in the areas of origin and, particularly, in the villages and local places where the IDPs used to live in. These are all development issues.
In this context, the participation of the IDPs and returnees in decisions that affect them is paramount for stabilisation. The upcoming elections, crucial for the political transition of the country, will require the genuine and full political participation of the IDPs and returnees. The recent inclusion of IDPs in the latest elections in Iraq is an excellent development in the political enfranchisement of IDPs and that experience points to distinct areas which will need to be improved by the Government and other stakeholders. The genuine participation of IDPs and returnees in the next elections can provide an opportunity to move the Iraqi society to a peaceful post-conflict society and the re-integration of IDPs and returnees in a sustainable political, economic and social lives.
Conclusion: Much progress has been attained in relation to the issue of internal displacement in Iraq. The remaining IDP population in the country, those in the existing camps and those out of camps, continue to require humanitarian assistance. The conditions in places of return and the durable solutions available to IDPs remain of paramount concern. I encourage discussions to take place at an inclusive and strategic way to bring clarity to the over-all approach of the Government and the international community including humanitarian, human rights and development and stabilisation entities. Regardless of the approach, it is crucial that protection and do no harm principles remain at the center of any strategy. My mandate continues to be at the disposal of the Government of the Republic of Iraq, in the international prerogative to protect the rights of IDPs and in the national interest of Iraq to fulfil the human rights of its citizens.