HRW accuses Iraqi army of forcefully returning IDPs to West Mosul

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Iraqi families flee the fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State jihadists around Mosul. File photo: AFP

ARA News

The Iraqi army and other local security forces have forced over 300 displaced families to return to West Mosul neighborhoods that are still under risk of attack by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

The families, who had fled to the Hammam al-Alil and Hajj Ali camps for displaced people, are severely short of water, food, electricity, and medical assistance.

Displaced residents, camp staff in Hammam al-Alil, and three federal police officers said that families were returned to certain West Mosul neighborhoods to make room for newly displaced people from more recently retaken neighborhoods of West Mosul. But aid workers involved in camp management and United Nations assessments of camp capacity indicated that the camps still have space for new arrivals.

“People from western Mosul fled some of the worst fighting there and finally found safety, only to be forced back to areas still under ISIS fire,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These families should not be forcibly returned to unsafe areas and areas that lack adequate water, food, electricity, or health facilities.”

The UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement state that all internally displaced people should be able to choose where they live and have the right to be protected against forcible return to any place where their life, safety, liberty, or health would be at risk.

HRW visited the Mansour and Wadi Hajjar neighborhoods in the western part of the war-torn city of Mosul on May 15, 2017, and spoke with some of the families. Three people from Wadi Hajjar said they had fled the fighting there for camps in Hammam al-Alil, 30 kilometers south of west Mosul, between one and two months ago.

They said that at around 1 p.m. on May 9, camp staff came to their tents and said they had to leave because the camp was full, and new arrivals were on the way from other West Mosul neighborhoods that had more recently been retaken by there Iraqi forces from ISIS. Some families were given up to two hours to leave, while others were ordered to leave immediately, without being able to gather their belongings.

Residents of western Mosul, who were forcibly returned and spoke to Human Rights Watch, said they did not wanted to return because of the lack of adequate food, water, and health facilities.

A staff member at the same camp in Hammam al-Alil said that an army commander called the camp manager on May 9, and said the camp had two hours to round up all the families from Wadi Hajjar, Tal Rumman, and Mansour neighborhoods. The staff started going tent by tent in Section A to deliver the instructions.

“The families were not ready, and most did not want to go,” the staff member said. “In the end, it was totally indiscriminate who got to stay because we had not made it to their tent in time, and who was forced to leave. We only got through a small number of the tents when at least 30 army trucks came and took at least 300 families.”

An international staff member said that the mayor issued an order on May 9, after hearing about the forcible returns, and that some of the families who had been forced out heard about it from friends or relatives in the camp and returned to the camp.

But the staff member was concerned that their ration cards might not have been returned to them. The mayor told Human Rights Watch all the returns had been voluntary, and that only 67 families had ultimately remained in West Mosul.

As of May 16, UN data showed that there were at least 7,000 plots in various camps available for new arrivals and two international aid workers told Human Rights Watch that organizations have identified multiple sites for potential new camps.

They said that one new camp opened at about the same time as the first forcible returns and that another is to open in late May. They said that at least one camp was ready to receive displaced people but was sitting empty at the order of local authorities.

In addition, at least 38 percent of displaced people from Mosul in northern Iraq were seeking refuge in host communities, not camps, with that number rapidly rising in recent weeks to up to 80 percent of the new arrivals.

However, aid workers said that Iraqi authorities have been hesitant to look beyond the camps in their planning to try to meet the needs of people seeking refuge elsewhere.

“The armed forces have an obligation to protect civilians, but they are instead putting civilians in danger by sending them back into unsafe areas,” HRW’s Fakih said. “All returns should be safe, dignified, voluntary, and informed.”

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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