Thousands of displaced Iraqis sent home despite risks: report

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi authorities are forcing thousands of displaced people to return to their home areas too soon despite the risk of death from booby-traps or acts of vigilantism, a report by refugee aid groups said on Wednesday.

Managing more than 2 million Iraqis displaced by the war against Islamic State is one of the Baghdad government’s most daunting tasks after it declared victory against the militant group in December.

Delays in moving people back to their home areas could force a postponement of Iraq’s May 12 parliamentary election as the refugee camps are not fit to host polling stations.

“... it is clear that many of the returns taking place are premature and do not meet international standards of safety, dignity, and voluntariness,” three refugee aid groups said in a joint report.

At least 8,700 displaced Iraqis in predominantly Sunni Muslim Anbar province were forced to return from camps to their areas of origin in the final six weeks of 2017, it said.

In two of five camps the aid groups collectively oversee, 84 percent of displaced Iraqis said they felt safer in the camp than in their area of origin. More than half said their houses were damaged or totally destroyed and only 1 percent said they knew for sure their houses were available for return.

One in five people who left a third camp came back later after facing retribution and threats in their areas of origin.

“It’s tragic to think that people feel safer in camps than in their homes when this conflict has supposedly ended,” said Petr Kostohryz, Iraq country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the aid groups that compiled the report.

“There can be no hope for peace in Iraq if the authorities cannot guarantee that people can go back home safely.”

The government’s spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on the report, which the International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council also helped to compile.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this month that some forced returns may have taken place but that they were “individual cases” and the result of decisions by specific provincial governors as opposed to federal government policy.

Reuters reported last month that Iraqi security forces were forcibly returning civilians from refugee camps to unsafe areas in Anbar province.

In one case a woman was killed when an explosive went off in the home she was forced to return to. Her daughter was badly burned and her husband lost one eye and sustained severe injuries in another.

Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Gareth Jones