U.S. troop numbers and economic reforms will no doubt receive the most attention in the U.S.-Iraq “strategic dialogue” set to continue this month. But the senior officials participating in these discussions must also focus on the future of Iraq’s most vulnerable internally displaced persons (IDPs), especially the families with alleged ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Leaving their fate unresolved undermines both humanitarian efforts undertaken so far and the U.S. stabilization agenda for the years ahead.

Iraq’s Camp Closure Policy

For the last three years, the Iraqi government has lacked a coherent IDP strategy. In the summer of 2017, soon after Mosul was retaken, Iraqi authorities in cities like Ramadi in Anbar, western Iraq, began to close IDP camps and pushed displaced citizens to return to retaken areas in Anbar as soon as areas were under government control. Many did, only to find neighborhoods without electricity or schools and houses riddled with explosives. Return and integration efforts were not done properly – local grievances were not addressed, reconciliation efforts were not undertaken, those with destroyed property were not compensated—to ensure displaced families could return safely without agitating existing tensions with the communities who had remained. Return in the absence of reconciliation has meant that returnees’ lives are still characterized by fragility and instability.

To some extent, this approach towards camp closures continues today. Despite these unstable and insufficient conditions for returnees, authorities have continued to press IDPs to return to their areas of origin—often focusing on pushing returns by closing camps, rather than investing in infrastructure and reconciliation that could draw citizens back voluntarily. For example, in 2019, more than 120,000 IDPs left the camps as part of a government-led effort to close IDP camps. Thousands of them did not make it home, and instead were displaced yet again – in some cases fueling instability in the communities where they eventually found shelter. In one instance in September 2019, hundreds of families were transferred from a camp in Ninewa back to Salah Al-Din (their governorate of origin) only to be met with residents pelting stones and throwing hand grenades at them. Around the same area, groups of residents held protests against the IDPs. Rather than mediate and gradually facilitate integration, authorities transferred many of the IDP families to Al-Karama, an isolated camp with detention-like conditions, where, according to humanitarian agencies, most of them remain today.

Families Accused of ISIS Affiliation: Undocumented, Barred from Return, and Excluded from Society

For the majority of Iraq’s displaced, the highest barriers to return are the lack of support to rebuild homes and create jobs. But the absence of an inclusive national reconciliation plan or an inclusive IDP strategy manifests itself most acutely for those who are actively prevented from returning home, mostly families (by marriage or birth) of individuals accused of ISIS affiliation. These family members have not actually been accused of crimes themselves. Instead, they  are punished for crimes allegedly committed by their relatives, barred from returning home by their former neighbors, community leaders, state-aligned militias, or state authorities themselves. These families are stuck in limbo: unable to return home yet unable to build a dignified life where they are.

Women and children related to men accused of ISIS affiliation are being punished in other ways as well. They are denied government-issued identification needed to exercise their basic rights as Iraqi citizens, including freedom of movement, access to education, or medical care. Without identification, these families cannot register children for school or access pre-school vaccinations. They would also be denied access to any jobs that may come with large scale U.S. investment. The Norwegian Refugee Council and others have found that many families  have been deprived of identification documents as a result of being denied a government issued “security clearance,” a pre-requisite to access identification documents which, in theory, is meant to clear them of accusations of ISIS affiliation. It is practically impossible to appeal a denial of clearance. Without this ‘security clearance’, their only option is to file an official complaint in an Iraqi court incriminating their male relatives (tabriya in Arabic) of being an ISIS member, a difficult decision for many who are unsure about their fate and acceptance in their communities if they initiate this tabriya process. Even if they choose to go through this process, it does not guarantee the right to return home or obtain identification documents.

What This Means for the U.S. Stabilization Agenda

The Iraqi government policy of linking “security clearance” with access to documentation is one of the most visible examples of recent discrimination, in that the requirement most affects Iraqis in Sunni majority areas that ISIS once controlled. It risks creating a generation of Iraqis facing a cycle of exclusion and marginalization, undermining prospects for stability in Iraq in the future.

Overlooking these issues will be disastrous. Although there is an assumption that three years after Mosul was retaken from ISIS, Iraq is on the road to recovery, inaction on these structural challenges will prove this assumption to be premature. With coronavirus spreading rapidly now, oil revenue in decline, and the economy expected to shrink by ten percent, Iraq’s national development agenda is already facing enormous setbacks. Iraqi officials and international organizations have warned that the poverty rate could increase to thirty percent, significantly setting back the post-conflict recovery and reconstruction progress made so far.

Furthermore, talks around the return of more than 30,000 Iraqi citizens, mostly women and children, stranded in Al-Hol camp in Syria have revived. These returnees will face similar – if not greater – hurdles to current IDPs: half of this population is undocumented, and they are widely perceived by the public to be sympathetic to ISIS. As a result, they will likely face extreme stigma from locals upon their return to Iraq. In the face of these overlapping crises, the creation of a cohesive plan that addresses these obstacles is more necessary now than ever.

The Iraqi government, the United States and the wider international community continue to invest in the restoration of Iraqi public services and institutions, but there must be assurances that the people most severely affected by the conflict with ISIS – including both IDPs and returnees – are not excluded. Linking humanitarian need with Iraq’s security objectives – thereby denying Iraq’s most vulnerable IDPs essential services based on their perceived security profile –  will only create a further stigmatized and isolated segment of Iraqi society undermining prospects for long term stability, and the United States’ own stabilization and security agenda.

Image: Iraqis walk past destroyed buildings as they evacuate a neighborhood in the western part of Mosul on April 5, 2017. Ahmad Gharbli/AFP via Getty Images