WASHINGTON — Humanitarians working in internally displaced people camps in Iraq have a role to play in helping stop the persecution and exploitation of women and children suspected of having ties to the Islamic State group, according to a new report by Amnesty International.
Amnesty found that women and children in IDP camps who are believed to have a family member affiliated with ISIS, or who come from a formerly ISIS-controlled area, are often denied access to food and health care and may be subjected to sexual assault and exploitation in the camps. They sometimes also have trouble getting identity documents and are denied freedom of movement.
Nicolette Waldman, a Middle East and North Africa researcher with Amnesty International who helped produce the report, called the problem a “big, open secret” among humanitarian workers in IDP camps in Iraq. She said that was part of the motivation for the project, which was conducted between October 2017 and March 2018.
“A lot of this stuff is just common knowledge — that these families are extremely at risk, that not enough is being done to protect them. And especially the issue of the armed actors [like] security guards, members of security forces, and militia groups in the camps, and all of the problems that creates,” Waldman said. “It’s very much known by the humanitarians, and I think they have felt at some points the challenge of what to do about that themselves.”
Tough immigration rules were ostensibly meant to safeguard victims of extremist violence and protect religious minorities. In a Christian internally displaced camp in Iraq, the effect has been the opposite.
Amnesty found that much of the exploitative and abusive behavior toward women and children was being perpetrated by armed actors present in the camps. These circumstances leave aid workers little ability to intervene, and Amnesty recognized that the Iraqi government must ultimately be responsible for removing armed actors from IDP camps. The organization provided a report to the Iraqi government before publication but has not received a response.
There is already a presidential directive dictating that armed actors should not be allowed in Iraq’s IDP camps, but that has done little to stem the groups’ ability to gain access and dominate within, or to force authorities to hold them accountable for sexual crimes.
“On the ground, it’s very difficult to argue with these armed actors. That’s why these decisions and the advocacy and the pressure has to come from the top level and the whole system needs to change,” Waldman said. “Because as it is right now, the women are often being told to go to the camp administration to complain and the camp administration is ... very closely related to the armed actors in the camps, so they absolutely feel they can’t go to them to complain.”
“There are complaint mechanisms that have been set up, but none of the women we talked to knew about any of the complaint mechanisms.”— Nicolette Waldman, Middle East and North Africa researcher with Amnesty International
But while the government must root out these players, there are ways aid workers can help protect the persecuted women and children. Humanitarians must monitor distribution of items such as food and medical supplies within the camps to make sure people with perceived ISIS ties are not be denied access, Amnesty said. There also needs to be more adherence to complaint mechanisms for sexual assault so victims can be properly cared for and protected. Tracking incidents can also help identify which camps have best practices, which can then be implemented at other locations.
“One of the main problems that we saw is there are complaint mechanisms that have been set up, but none of the women we talked to knew about any of the complaint mechanisms,” Waldman said. “There’s also still so much stigma for women to come forward and to complain about rape or about sexual exploitation, so we’re calling on the humanitarians to really try to raise awareness of what complaint mechanisms exist.”
Those persecuted in the IDP camps often have “tenuous” ties to ISIS, Waldman said. This can include a distant family member like a brother-in-law being a member of the terrorist group, or coming from a particular area that was previously under ISIS control. Many of the women told Amnesty they did have ties to ISIS in some way: Of the 92 head-of-household women interviewed, 64 said they did have a connection to the terrorist group. Thirteen women said they had no connection, and 15 did not comment on any possible affiliation.
But many of the women said such affiliation was not by choice but out of necessity to survive when ISIS held such large territories in Iraq. Many of the camps Amnesty visited were outside of Mosul, which was under ISIS control for three years until July 2017. Researchers spoke not only to camp residents, but also with camp staff members, NGO workers, former United Nations officials, and journalists to gain an understanding of conditions on the ground.