February 27, 2018 / 10:01 PM / 4 months ago

Thousands of Iraqis too scared to go home because of ISIS stigma

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of Iraqi families forced to flee last year’s fighting in Mosul are being prevented from returning home by their communities because they had a relative who joined Islamic State, an aid worker said on Tuesday.

Communities are also barring some families from accessing aid for the same reason, said Omar Ali, Iraq country director of British charity Human Appeal.

Others have had “ISIS family” daubed on their old homes, jeopardizing their safety, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of the Bond international development conference in London.

“There’s a real social cohesion challenge for the future,” said the British aid worker who set up Human Appeal’s operations in Iraq 14 months ago as fighting raged in Mosul.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in camps around Mosul after fleeing Iraq’s second largest city at the bloody end of the militants’ rule.

Islamic State, also known as ISIS, seized nearly a third of the country in 2014. Iraq declared victory in December.

Ali said thousands of people had been ostracized by their communities even though they never supported the militants.

“You have a family of 50, with just one man who joined ISIS, but the whole family, despite reporting that individual, is now stigmatized - and they are scared to return,” he said.

Ali warned that there was also potential for land and property disputes as families return home because so few people have papers to prove ownership.

He said ISIS had confiscated people’s identity papers, creating a “massive problem”.

“There are huge issues with civilian ID - many people have no birth certificates, marriage certificates or property ownership certificates,” Ali said.

“This means people can’t access assistance from the government and they can’t go back to their houses because they can’t prove ownership.”

Ali said the war had left many women as head of their household, but many were illiterate and did not know how to obtain identity documents to access government help or food aid.

Human Appeal and the United Nations refugee agency have opened centers staffed by lawyers to address such problems.

CHILDREN IN CHARGE

The war has also left many households headed by children.

“You get eight or nine children being looked after by a 14- or 15-year-old boy or girl who is at the complete mercy of whoever has taken control of their guardianship,” Ali said.

He said the challenges in Iraq were enormous but aid agencies were “working their socks off” and the government was supportive.

“Western Mosul is complete and utter devastation, everything is destroyed, everything is rubble,” he added.

“Hospitals are decimated and lack medicines, and many children have been out of school for three years.”

Although the government has promised people compensation to rebuild homes, Ali said it was “not coming any time soon”.

Despite the militants’ defeat, he said violence continued in the northern city due to ISIS sleeper cells.

Iraq’s allies promised Baghdad $30 billion this month to recover from the war ahead of elections in May. Baghdad has said it needs $88 billion.

A report by three major aid groups on Wednesday said that the majority of displaced Iraqis in the western province of Anbar also feared returning home.

It found that 84 percent of Iraqis in the Amriyat Al-Fallujah and Bezabize camps reported feeling safer in the camps than in their area of origin.

“People are afraid of retribution, unexploded bombs, or simply have nowhere to return to,” said Petr Kostohryz, Iraq country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the aid groups behind the report.

Additional Reporting by Ana Ionova, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.

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