In early April, they risked their lives to flee the so-called Islamic State. But after walking 11 hours from their hometown of Hawija in northern Iraq to the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled territory, Mustafa and his exhausted family of six found no freedom.
Since being transported by truck from northern Kirkuk to Nazrawa camp, south of the city, they haven’t been allowed to leave. They are now stuck, among some 2,200 inhabitants of a camp critics say has become a de facto detention centre for Sunni Arabs.
Iraq’s internally displaced are citizens of the country, and retain the right to move freely inside the country. However, having lived under IS for nearly two years, the more recently displaced are viewed as being potentially supportive of IS.
In addition to that, the remnants of long-standing Arab-Kurdish antipathies have further damaged an already fragile dynamic between the ethnic groups.
The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government has struggled to cope with an influx of displaced people fleeing IS territory – well over a million since January 2014 – and after Kirkuk authorities appealed for help, Nazrawa was opened in November 2015. It was paid for with donor funding from 10 countries, including the United States, and is administered by a charity, International Relief and Development.
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, funds administration and management costs, but the Kurdish government is in charge of security. While Kirkuk officially remains under Baghdad’s jurisdiction, it is really Kurdish-controlled, giving the Kurds a large amount of leverage both in the wider governorate and inside the camp.
As thousands of internally displaced Iraqis flooded into the KRG at the start of the year, escaping an increase in coalition airstrikes and the crippled IS economy, Kurdish authorities reportedly concluded that that the militant group had plans to use the movement of civilians as a Trojan horse ploy to infiltrate Kurdish-controlled areas.
This in turn prompted the already wary Kurds to issue an order: civilians were not to leave Nazrawa camp.
On 11 March, UNHCR flagged forcible relocations and disproportionate restrictions on civilians’ freedom of movement as matters of “great concern.”
UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rumley said all residents were being forcibly relocated and confined to the camp, regardless of whether or not they had completed a security screening required of all new entrants to the KRG.
The NGO that runs the camp, IRD, didn’t respond to several requests for comment. The KRG dismissed the accusations, calling them “unacceptable” and accusing UNHCR of exaggeration.
“We reject that any of the camps in the Kurdistan region, or any other camps with Peshmerga [Kurdish military] forces, have been detention camps for IDPs,” KRG spokesman Dindar Zebari told IRIN.
Zebari referred to Nazrawa as a “temporary camp,” set up to screen civilians far from the dangers of the frontlines, where they are free to come and go as they please.
“The government of Kirkuk decide to help these IDPs on the basis of humanitarian support,” he emphasised.
But Human Rights Watch says there are no active clashes in the areas the IDPs were being taken from.
“The folks who were forced on trucks and buses to Nazrawa said there was no fighting where they were,” HRW senior researcher Christoph Wilcke told IRIN.
Ease brings little relief
Since the March report, restrictions on movement have been eased. UNHCR told IRIN that civilians are now allowed to leave the camp, but only if they can ensure their return.
This means that civilians must leave their identify documents with camp management, or have a family member vouch for them. The first option is not viable for most, as travelling without identification is unsafe and means they will not be able to get through checkpoints.
For civilians without identity documents, family members are required to leave their own with camp management until their relatives return to the camp.
Critics say this means the camp is still, essentially, a detention centre.
“It’s a centre where freedom of movement seems to [now] be restricted by indirect means,” Wilcke told IRIN. “The people we spoke to said they were free to leave but their freedom was restricted by having to leave their IDs.”
Mustafa told IRIN that Kurdistan’s security forces detained him for 12 days to ensure he was not a member of IS. Meanwhile, his wife and children were taken to Nazrawa, where they were eventually reunited. “My ID card is still being held by… [Kurdish security] and I cannot go outside the camp,” he said.
To a certain extent, Mustafa at least knows why he can’t leave: his ID is still to be returned to him. Others have no clue.
A young girl IRIN spoke to, 13-year-old Khanza, said she hadn’t been allowed to leave despite having an uncle and two siblings in Kirkuk. Another man, Omar, visits the camp regularly with food for his wife and three children who have not been granted permission to leave Nazrawa, despite having family members in Kirkuk who can also vouch for them.
In addition to catering for his family, Omar also provides food for some of the single men inside the camp – young unmarried men are deemed a greater security threat than family men and he says they face heightened discrimination.
Food is not always readily available, as commercial trucks don’t have regular access to the gated entrance. With no work in the camp, residents are exhausting their savings and forced to rely on aid distributions.
Fadila, 41, counts on her neighbours’ charity to provide food for herself and her four children. Her husband died five years ago, making her a single female head of household – financially disadvantaged and often socially segregated.
“I feel like we live in a big prison,” she told IRIN.
This is not the first time Iraq’s Kurds have been accused of implementing overly severe rules in camps inhabited by displaced Sunni Arabs, with similar reports coming from Garmawa camp in Nineveh and Laylan camp in Kirkuk.
The major military operation to retake Iraq’s second city of Mosul from IS is only in its early stages.
“In the months ahead, as areas are retaken by the government, we have to assume that hundreds of thousands of people, maybe even a million people, are going to be screened by authorities,” Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told IRIN.
“The UN is concerned that screening is done appropriately and transparently and in ways which are consistent with international best practice.”
As the Iraqi military trudges northward, displacing hundreds of thousands of people along the way, the situation in camps like Nazrawa takes on an ever-increasing importance.
With additional reporting by Ali Arafa
* Names used are not their real names