‘We live here like prisoners’

Many displaced Iraqis seeking shelter in camps have found they cannot leave to get warm blankets, medicine or extra food. The camps lie in what are known as Iraq’s “disputed territories”.

By Ibrahim Saleh in Diyala, via Niqash

Ali al-Bayati brought his family to the Bahari Taza displaced persons camp almost six weeks ago. But none of them have been able to leave the camp at all since they arrived.

“We brought a decent amount of money with us,” al-Bayati tells Niqash. “But I haven’t been able to spend it getting the things my family needs because we are living in this camp like prisoners.”

If they leave the camp, they can’t get in again, al-Bayati explains. And if they do manage to get out, they need to have a guarantor from among the locals to assure the family’s good behaviour.

And the reason for al-Bayati’s woes, shared by many other displaced people in the area?

The camp is in the Khanaqin area in Diyala province, which is officially part of Iraq but which has been under the de facto control of military from the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan next door for some time. The area is one of Iraq’s “disputed territories” – that is, areas that the Iraqi Kurdish say are theirs because of the mainly Kurdish population but which the government in Baghdad says belongs to Iraq proper.

“We are in Iraqi Kurdistan,” al-Bayati agrees, “not Diyala province.”

And the reason that the displaced Iraqis are not being allowed out of the camp are twofold. Firstly, Kurdish locals increasingly fear that any Arabs that come into their comparatively safe area may be connected with extremists from the Islamic State group that has taken control of parts of northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish military are currently fighting the extremists elsewhere.

Tents at the Bahari Taza displaced persons camp in Diyala.

Secondly authorities fear that if too many of the displaced people stay then the balance of population will change in favour of Iraq’s Arabs – when the promised census is finally undertaken to see who the disputed area belongs to, there may well be far more Arabs here than Kurds. Given the situation in Iraq at the moment it doesn’t seem likely that any of the displaced Arab individuals living in Bahari Taza will be able to leave soon. 

These kinds of concerns are causing the displaced people all sorts of problems.

“The cold weather is our biggest issue,” says another displaced Iraqi who wished to be known as Abu Abdul-Qader. “Where we are living is open to the cold and the rain and we don’t have heaters. I wanted to go and buy a heater and some thick blankets but I can’t leave the camp because of these rules.”

“In other refugee camps the inhabitants can go to the markets or visit their relatives,” adds another camp local, Amir Balil. “We need medicine and food. But we cannot get them. There are a lot of restrictions on our movement.”
Posted on Friday, 28 November 2014