Iraq’s internal refugees being forced back to unsafe areas in order to vote in May elections

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the return of millions of returnees to towns that are far from safe.

Families arrive at IDP camps from the city of Hawija and surrounding villages in the Dibis District in Kirkuk, Iraq. (CREDIT: Younes Mohammad/Getty Images)
Families arrive at IDP camps from the city of Hawija and surrounding villages in the Dibis District in Kirkuk, Iraq. (CREDIT: Younes Mohammad/Getty Images)

A month after declaring victory over the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), roughly two million internally displaced Iraqis face being returned back to unsafe towns by Iraqi security forces, prompting concern from refugee advocacy groups and aid workers.

The refugees are being forced back to the towns they fled as a result of ISIS rule and fighting, Reuters reported on Monday, in order to ensure that the parliamentary elections take place on time in May, as under Iraqi law, voters must be in their home districts before they can vote.

Al-Abadi in June unveiled a 10-year reconstruction plan for Iraq that is supposed to start this year, but it seems the refugees, also referred to as internally displaced people (or IDPs), are being returned to areas that have been in some cases entirely decimated by the campaign against ISIS.

A diplomat from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad told Reuters she had heard of the forced returns and that the United States has asked that the IDPs — at one point numbering at around 3.2 million, according to U.N. figures — be returned home safely.

U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is facing a tough election. His opposition to the Kurdish independence referendum in September is likely to have created a formidable roadblock, given the 62 seats the Kurdish blocks control in the 328-seat parliament.

Al-Abadi in December vowed that the elections would happen on time. “The cabinet today reiterated that provincial and parliamentary elections will be held on 12 May 2018. There is no reason for delaying the elections,” he said.

But timely elections mean that in many cases, the returnees face the risks of hidden explosives and booby traps left behind by ISIS, as well as threats of possible renewed violence. In many cases, their homes have been destroyed and they’re told to live in tents in cities where they no longer have a livelihood or any means of support or access to medical services.

Aid workers tell Reuters that the refugees have already been taken back from camps at Amriyat al-Fallujah, 25 miles from Baghdad, as well as other nearby communities, against their will. They were given an hour to pack up and leave the IDP camps at which they were staying and be transported back via military trucks.

The forced returns, carried out by the military at al-Abadi’s behest, started in the fall.

“Even those who don’t openly resist really have no other choice. They cannot really say no to a bunch of people with guns,” said one aid worker. An Iraqi military spokesman said that while the reports for forced returns was exaggerated, that “citizens have to go home.”

Mahdi Ahmed, an IDP, said being forced to return home would prompt him to not vote for al-Abadi’s party.

“They are doing this because of the election, but if I go back and see my house destroyed, my money gone, and my life ruined, why would I vote for them?” he asked.

Humanitarian and refugee groups have been worrying about early returns for months. Refugees International issued a report in September calling the returns “ill-advised under most circumstances.”

“Where people want to go home badly enough, they simply will. But the government in Baghdad must take seriously its responsibility to protect its own citizens and to assure a stable future in Iraq,” said the report.