Iraq’s minorities on ‘verge of disappearance’

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By Rudaw
Iraqi Christians who fled Islamic State in Mosul attend prayers at Ashti camp in Erbil. Photo: AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Iraq’s minority communities are under threat and on the verge of disappearing altogether says a new report from a group of human rights monitoring and advocacy organizations.

Christian, Yezidi, Kaka’i, Turkmen, and Shabak minority groups in Iraq have been subjected to murder, abduction, forced marriage, genocide, rape, torture, mutilation, cruel treatment, forcible recruitment of children, chemical weapons, destruction of property and cultural and religious heritage, displacement, and looting, according to the report.

“Thirteen years of war have had devastating long-term consequences for Iraqi society. The impact on minorities has been catastrophic,” said Mark Lattimer, Executive Director of Minority Rights Group, one of the authors of the report. “Saddam was terrible; the situation since is worse. Tens of thousands of religious and ethnic minorities have been killed and millions have fled for their lives.”

The Christian population has dropped from 1.4 million before 2003 to under 250,000. And Yezidi, Kaka’i, Turkmen, and Shabak communities have been forced from their lands.

‘Families are destroyed. Homes, businesses and farms have been looted. Heritage is either demolished or sold,” said William ‘Spence’ Spencer of the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, another author of the report. “Survivors will have nothing to return to, unless Iraq and the international community take more robust action to address the crushing needs of minorities.”

Many of those who have been displaced do not intend to their home areas once security and living conditions improve. Of the internally displaced (IDPs) in central and southern Iraq, 42 percent told the UN they intend to go home and another 35 percent are waiting to decide the matter.

In the Kurdistan Region and areas in northern Iraq under Kurdish control, only 22 percent, mainly Christians and Yezidis from Nineveh, have stated they intend to return to their homes.

Christian leaders said they no longer believed it possible to live a “dignified life” in Iraq. In Baghdad, only 15 percent of its Christian community remains. The rest are displaced internally or fled the country altogether.

Many Yezidis reported being too afraid to return to their homes despite wanting to be back on their lands. The Yezidi population is severely traumatized from the genocide carried out against their people.

Some minority groups are forming their own militias, trained by the Peshmerga and international forces, to participate in battles against the Islamic State and to protect their own communities. There are now Christian and Yezidi brigades within the Peshmerga.

Others believe their communities no longer have a home in Iraq, particularly outside of the Kurdistan Region, the report stated, and many are going abroad. Iraq was the third highest country of origin for refugees arriving in Europe in 2015 and 2016.

While the report says that the Islamic State is the main perpetrator of these crimes, it also accuses the Iraqi security forces, Popular Mobilization Units (include sectarian militia groups), and the Kurdish Peshmerga of all committing crimes against Iraq’s Christian, Yezidi, Kaka’i, Turkmen, and Shabak groups since Mosul fell to the Islamic State in June 2014.

The report, citing Amnesty International, accuses the Kurdistan Regional Government, through its Peshmerga and Asayesh, of destroying homes and shops in Ninewa, Kirkuk, and Diyala governorates after they came under Peshmerga control upon the defeat of ISIS.

It also says that Kurdish security forces have conducted raids and arbitrary arrests in Kirkuk, forcibly moving internally displaced families and destroying shelters, some of which were reportedly in retaliation for families’ perceived support of ISIS.

The report also raised concerns over conditions in camps for the internally displaced (IDP), citing reports of insufficient housing and supplies of basic necessities as well as lack of access to medical care and education, and restriction of movement by the armed forces.

The authors accuse the governments of Baghdad and Erbil of placing low priority on the needs of minority groups and addressing issues of justice and reconciliation. They urge local and international authorities to immediately begin planning for post-ISIS in order to re-establish security and allow minorities to return to their homes and livelihoods.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has responded previously to accusations of rights violations by its security forces, denying a systematic policy of discrimination against minority and Arab populations and indicating its readiness to cooperate with international organizations to investigate individual cases of violations and bring perpetrators to justice.

The Kurdistan Region is hosting nearly 1.8 million Iraqi IDPs and Syrian refugees, resulting in a 30% increase in its population. At the same time, the Region has seen its revenues drop as oil prices hit rock bottom prices and Baghdad stopped giving the KRG its share of the national budget.

International agencies assisting with IDPs and refugees in the Region are also facing a funding crisis. The United Nation’s funding appeal is only 33 percent funded and the UN has had to close some of its services including frontline medical care programmes.

Some minority group members interviewed for the report stated they were disappointed with the Iraqi and Kurdish governments as well as international agencies including the United Nations.

The report, No Way Home: Iraq’s minorities on the verge of disappearance, was researched and authored by Minority Rights Group International, the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, No Peace Without Justice, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, and the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights.