Some 3,500 Iranian dissidents in Iraq - members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) opposed to Iran’s current government - are protesting their transfer to a new camp on the outskirts of Baghdad, complaining the site resembles “a prison”.
Shahriar Kia, a spokesman for the group, said about 800 MKO members have been moved in two batches starting on 18 February from Camp Ashraf in northwestern Iraq to Camp Liberty, a former US military base close to the international airport in Baghdad. But the remaining 2,700 former fighters, who have been a diplomatic challenge for the government, are refusing to be transferred until “minimum guarantees” are met.
“[The demands are that] Iraqi armed forces are moved to outside the camp; surveillance cameras are removed; freedom of movement is allowed; issues relating to water and electricity shortages and the sewage system are resolved; and free access to medical services is allowed,” he said.
MKO, he added, could build the necessary facilities in the new camp and be assisted by the UN to transfer all their moveable assets either to Camp Liberty or outside Iraq, or to sell them by the end of April.
Radhia Achouri, spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), however, said the UN stands by its assessment that the infrastructure and facilities at the camp are in accordance with international humanitarian standards.
“Our monitors are in constant contact with the residents and the Iraqi authorities,” she said. “There are daily camp management meetings during which concerns of both parties are addressed in the presence of UN monitors.”
MKO is affiliated to the National Council of Resistance which opposes Iran’s current government. They were behind many attacks inside Iran during the 1980s and were hosted for years by the ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Camp Ashraf.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government has made repeated calls for the group’s expulsion, and in April 2011 Iraqi forces stormed Camp Ashraf whose residents have protected status under the Geneva Conventions.
After a good deal of diplomatic juggling behind the scenes, in December 2011 the UN mediated an agreement between the Iraqi government and MKO under which the group would move from Camp Ashraf to Camp Liberty where members can be screened by the UN for asylum eligibility in a third country.
More like a prison?
Since the transfer of the first group in February, Camp Liberty inmates have been complaining about restrictions. For example, they are not allowed to take all their belongings to the new camp. They say the new camp lacks infrastructure and that the presence of Iraqi security forces hinders their movement.
“It is totally a prison… This prison camp needs months to be ready for human beings,” said Mohammed Eqbal, 63.
“The deployment of [Iraqi] police inside the camp shows no respect for the personal lives and privacy of the residents,” Eqbal told IRIN by phone from the camp. “There are surveillance cameras inside the camp to monitor our movements.”
Iraqi and UN officials have agreed that police would only be deployed outside Camp Liberty - at the entrance, but the agreement is not being adhered to, he added.
Media outlets are not allowed by the Iraqi government to visit the camp to interview residents.
Under the deal, once everyone has been relocated to Camp Liberty, the UN will review people’s refugee status.
“UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] has completed interviews of the first 397 residents, and is in the process of carrying out their refugee status determination which involves a detailed and thorough examination of individual refugee claims,” Achouri said.