Among Displaced Iraqis, One Group Is Worse Off Than the Rest
Internal refugees with perceived ties to the Islamic State suffer abuse and sexual exploitation in camps.
MOSUL, Iraq—Thousands of Iraqis with perceived family ties to the Islamic State are facing extreme poverty and abuse in displacement camps across the country, with little or no chance of returning home.
Many are refused security clearances in the camps, which means they cannot obtain the identity cards needed to access basic services and their movement is restricted. Some women have suffered sexual violence and exploitation at the hands of armed men, including security guards, pro-government militiamen, and soldiers, according to interviews conducted in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria this month.
Some of these Iraqis are the wives or siblings of Islamic State fighters, but others have only loose tribal connections to people in the militant group. Still others say they’ve been stigmatized for simply remaining in their hometowns when the Islamic State took control instead of fleeing. One thing they have in common: All are Sunni Muslims.
This abuse of people with only the flimsiest ties to the Islamic State—which has been ousted from the vast swaths of territory it once controlled—raises doubts about the prospects of long-term stability in Iraq, a country plagued by violence since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
“We cannot get a security permit, our homes are destroyed, and we have problems with the Yazidis [a minority ethno-religious group targeted by the Islamic State],” said one man from Sinjar whose brother was an Islamic State fighter. He spoke to Foreign Policy at a displacement camp east of Mosul, where he lives with his family.
“They think all of our tribe members are ISIS, although 27 members of our tribe were killed fighting ISIS,” he said. Like others interviewed for this story, the man asked not to be identified, fearing retribution from all sides.
The man’s mother, also a resident of the camp, said she had no part in her son’s decision to join the Islamic State. “You know how our traditions are, the women do not decide on such matters,” she said. “There is no future for us. We wish to return to our homes, but we have no choice but to remain here.”
Nearly 1.8 million Iraqis of all ethnic and political stripes continue to be displaced after fleeing the fighting as part of the campaign against the Islamic State. Many of them cannot return to their homes due to widespread destruction, slow reconstruction, pre-existing tribal and communal disputes, and a proliferation of competing militias in their hometowns. But those with perceived ties to the Islamic State might be the most vulnerable. Many of them face abuse from the wider Iraqi community and security forces. According to estimates by rights groups and Iraqi officials, they number between 100,000 and 500,000 people.
Tens of thousands of them live in displacement camps, which many described as de facto detention camps given the restrictions on people’s movement. Human rights organizations have reported on suicides inside camps and on women resorting to trading sex for basic necessities. Children who lack documentation, including anyone born under Islamic State rule, are denied access to schools.
“Just imagine the coming generations. These are children that are going to be very angry,” said Rasha Al Aqeedi, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a native of Mosul.
There are no official guidelines or consistent policies regarding how to determine if someone had ties to the Islamic State—the process is opaque. According to the U.N. mission to Iraq, at least seven lists of suspected Islamic State militants are in circulation, with names typically added based on information provided to security forces by relatives, neighbors, or others. Village elders and tribal authorities also play a role in shaping the process.
In some cases, authorities have applied the designation for the flimsiest of reasons. Aqeedi said many Iraqis distrust tribal and rural Sunnis, often perceiving them as extremists and opportunists who are disloyal to the Iraqi state and ready to ally themselves with whatever power helps preserve the tribe.
Some people have been arrested on charges of belonging to the Islamic State just for having the same first and last name as an Islamic State member. Others say they ended up on a list because of false information provided by a person with a vendetta. In Hajj Ali, south of Mosul, some residents were branded “Islamic State families” and sent to internment, apparently for opposing the leadership of a local sheikh, according to research conducted by the Global Public Policy Institute, a German think tank. Even some victims of the Islamic State, such as sex slaves, have been designated as linked to the group and interned.
One woman whom Foreign Policy interviewed in Mosul said she was married off to an Islamic State fighter to secure the release of her brother. She described being repeatedly raped by her husband and forced to carry to term two unwanted pregnancies.
“Everyone looks at us with disgust and hatred,” she said about families with a perceived affiliation to the Islamic State. The woman avoided being sent to a camp because people in her community were unaware of her forced marriage, but she said she lives in fear of imprisonment or worse—rape and murder.
“My daughters and I—it is not our fault. They did not choose their father, and I did not choose him either,” she said. “Sometimes I think I will speak up and say that this is not our fault. We were sex slaves, Muslim sex slaves. The difference between the Yazidi sex slaves and us is that they came out with their honor and everyone is standing by them. And us—everyone exploits and humiliates us.”
Stigmatized families that do end up in the camps often have their identity cards or other documents confiscated and must undergo a security clearance process to apply for new documentation and gain access to services. Although the security clearance process varies from place to place, it generally requires families to obtain affidavits from community leaders in their hometown attesting to the fact that they’re not affiliated with the Islamic State. The documents are required even if families do not wish to return to their area of origin.
If they fail the clearance process and end up with no identity card, the results can be devastating. The cards (or other forms of documentation) are necessary for accessing health services, education, and other basic services. Those living outside the camps face a similar problem. Many have lost their identification papers during the war. Others have only documentation issued by the Islamic State. Presenting such documents can lead to internment and further stigmatization.
Conditions in the displacement camps vary depending on the location and which organizations manage them, but many are run-down and poorly equipped.
Two human rights activists in Iraq told Foreign Policy that conditions are particularly bad in camps holding only families with perceived ties to the Islamic State. Due to a shortage of funding, aid organizations are unable to improve or even maintain conditions at the camps. With the slow pace of reconstruction in bombed-out towns and villages, many Iraqis will be forced to remain in the camps for years.
Amnesty International and Daraj, an independent Arab media outlet, have documented cases of rape and sexual exploitation of women perceived as having ties to the Islamic State, some at the hands of armed personnel in the camps. “Some women have given up their honor as the only way to save her family and her children from hunger,” an activist from Mosul who works in camps neighboring the city told Foreign Policy. “We hear about such cases in all camps, without exception, but women cannot talk about this.”
In some cases, women are coerced into sexual relationships in exchange for money, basic services, or permission to leave the camp. According to Omar Mohammed, the founder of Mosul Eye, a network of activists from Mosul, men have formed prostitution rings in some camps, forcing women to engage in sex work. The victims routinely undergo abortions to deal with the unwanted pregnancies.
One woman confined to a camp south of Mosul with her four children told Foreign Policy that armed men propositioned her and her female relatives.
“They say they will help me in any way, work things out for me, give me money, but I need to allow them [to have sex]. They pressured me to give them my phone number. Everything in Iraq works according to connections, so they offer this in exchange,” she said.
The woman, who was married to an Islamic State fighter, said tribal leaders in her hometown of Hawija gave her permission to return but only if she was willing to leave her children behind. She said she had no role in her husband’s decision to join the Islamic State.
“He didn’t ask me anything, nothing—he did whatever he wanted,” she said. “By God, I’ve been humiliated. I am in a terrible mental state.”
Mohammed told Foreign Policy that the trade of women has become so organized that “women would be taken to Mosul to work as prostitutes, and then are brought back to the camps, while other women are traded between camps.”
In one case Mohammed worked on, a woman in a camp near Mosul was pressured by armed men to give her daughter up for prostitution. In return, the family would be allowed to leave the camp for good.
“We were fighting the Islamic State in part because of the same abuses. How can we adopt their values?” he said.
The views in this article represent those of the authors alone.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking focusing on Syria and Iraq. Twitter: @Elizrael