by Madeleine Davies
Star appeal: the actor and UNICEF Ambassador Ewan McGregor meets displaced children at the Debaga IDP camp, in northern Iraq at the end of July, where he called for help for children “ripped from their homes”
MINORITY communities in Iraq are “on the verge of disappearance”, a report from the charity Minorities Rights Group International (MRG) has found. The report cites an estimate that the Christian population may have fallen to 250,000.
Interviews informing the report No Way Home: Iraq’s minorities on the verge of disappearance found that displaced Christians held “pessimistic views” on return to their homes. One Christian leader in northern Iraq predicted that just 30,000 expected to return to Nineweh, which was home to 80,000 people before the arrival of Islamic State.
“Minorities are increasingly losing their sense of belonging in Iraq,” the report’s authors warn. They describe “desperate” conditions in camps, and a “loss of trust” in the governments of Iraq and Kurdistan. “Many IDPs [internally displaced persons] . . . are losing patience with return policies and restrictions, which are starting to generate further demographic changes in Iraq.” As many as one in five feels that he or she have no choice but to leave the country, it says.
“There appears to be no serious Iraqi or international effort to build the political, social and economic conditions for the sustainable return of those who lost homes and livelihoods as a result of the conflict,” the authors write. Support is needed to locate the missing, provide justice, ensure the return of homes, and facilitate reconciliation, they argue. Without this, Iraq will have another “lost generation, radicalized by homelessness and depredation, repeating the cycle that created ISIS”.
Their recommendations include the mapping of all the mass graves, supporting the relatives of victims, and conducting forensic analysis of remains.
Ewan McGregor walks with Myrna, 10, inside an abandoned mall in which she and her family used to live, in Erbil, northern Iraq
The obstacles in the path of return are many, and include restrictions on movement imposed by local authorities, lost paperwork, corruption, discrimination, and funding shortages. Those who return face damaged homes, booby-traps, and the presence of armed groups. In areas such as Nineweh, even if ISIS is driven out, disputes over land “will continue to place minorities at risk of further rights violations”.
“Justice and reconciliation matters remain an unfortunately low priority for the governments in Baghdad and Erbil and, despite supportive rhetoric, for the international community,” the authors write.
The United Nations lists 3.3 million IDPs in Iraq. The MRG argues that ethnic and religious minorities have been “disproportionately affected”. It predicts that hundreds of thousands could be added to the numbers of Iraqi refugees this year. Already, Iraq is the third most common country of origin of refugees who fled to Europe in 2015-16
One Iraqi NGO suggested that only 15 per cent of Baghdad’s Christians remained: the rest had been displaced or forced to flee the country. A Christian leader claimed that no more than 250,000 Christians are now left in Iraq. The manager of the Ashti IDP camps predicted that a third of its Christian families would be gone by the end of the year.
“I speak for Christians, Yezidis, and Kaka’is when I say Iraq does not want us,” said one religious figure interviewed in Northern Iraq.
The MRG report is available at http://minorityrights.org/publications/no-way-home-iraqs-minorities-on-the-verge-of-disappearance/
Untold story. An “extensive” eight-month consultation has enabled Christians and church leaders in Iraq and Syria to voice “their desire to remain in Iraq and play a vital role in rebuilding their nation”, the charity Open Doors said last week.
A full report on the consultation, conducted in partnership with the University of East London, will be launched in Parliament in October. One Iraqi Christian is quoted as saying: “I want my fellow Iraqis to know that we are not guests in Iraq. Our ancestors built this country. Treat me as a sister, not as a guest.”
The head of advocacy for Open Doors UK and Ireland, Zoe Smith, said that, while Christians continued to face “extreme persecution” in Iraq, “many who stay have a desire to play a central role in rebuilding their society. It’s vital that this untold part of the story is brought into the open so our government not only views Iraqi Christians as victims but as key partners in rebuilding and reconciling their country.”
On Monday, Catholic News Agency reported that three priests had been ordained in the Syriac-Catholic Church, in a refugee camp in Erbil that is home to Christians who fled from ISIS in Qaraqosh two years ago.