Iraq: Rushed closure of Laylan camp will cause dire humanitarian consequences

Displaced people living in Laylan camp are asked to load their belongings on trucks provided by the authorities as part of the camp closure.
Iraq 2020 © Alex Dunne/MSF
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NEW YORK/AMSTERDAM/BAGHDAD, NOVEMBER 24, 2020—The rushed closure of Laylan camp in Iraq’s Kirkuk governorate and forced return of displaced people will have serious humanitarian consequences and risk exposing an already vulnerable population to additional harm, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

Early yesterday morning, trucks began arriving at the camp in preparation to start moving residents back to their areas of origin elsewhere in Iraq this week. Residents of these camps have serious concerns about violence, lack of access to proper shelter, health care, and other basic services, if they are forcibly returned home. Iraqi authorities should not immediately close this camp without offering a safe and sustainable solution, said MSF.

Since October, approximately 25,000 Iraqis living in formal camps for displaced people have been returned to their areas of origin as the government of Iraq begins the process of camp closures. While many people may want to return home, insecurity, lack of shelter amid harsh winter conditions, and the absence of services such as health care make doing so safely impossible. Camp residents have already expressed their fears of being returned against their will to MSF staff who are providing health care in the camp.

“Even if they want to close the camp, they should not send us to our home areas now,” one woman told MSF staff. “They need to provide safety for us. Because of many tribal issues and insecurity, many people cannot go back to their villages.”

In some cases, returnees face possible violence and arrest in their areas of origin if they are suspected of affiliation with the Islamic State (IS) group. Stigma in Iraq against anyone suspected of links with the IS group means that some people are extremely fearful for their family’s safety.

“When some of my neighbors went back, they were verbally assaulted and had to hide from local people—they were afraid they would be hurt,” adds the woman.

More than 7,000 people currently live in Laylan camp, most of them women and children. The camp was established in 2014 after conflict broke out in several of Iraq’s towns like Hawija and Salah Al-Din, forcing people to flee their homes. Several camp residents told MSF that they have nothing to return to.

“Our house has been destroyed,” said another woman. “We have young children and we don’t know how we’ll manage if we are sent back. The weather is getting colder and colder each day. We have no salary to rent a house to keep safe and warm. Laylan camp is safe for us and we have water and electricity. If we are sent away, we’ll have no water or electricity. How can we manage without these services in our daily life?”

Many residents also rely on the medical care they are receiving within the camp, while access to health care for displaced people outside the camp is limited. MSF has been providing care for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), mental health consultations, and sexual and reproductive health care services.

“MSF is treating 300 patients with NCDs in the camp; they require uninterrupted lifelong treatment and care,” said Gul Badshah, MSF head of mission in Iraq. “With this rapid closure, there is no time for MSF to provide patients with medication to cover a three-month period till they manage to access another health facility and to prepare the medical files they need to enrol in another NCD program in their area of return without interrupting their treatment.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is another concern for MSF teams.

“Our concern is that patients may have to move out of the camp in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Badshah said. “There are eight confirmed COVID-19 cases in the camp’s isolation area. It is not clear how these patients would be transferred and how quickly they would get access to medical care.”

Given the dire consequences, MSF urges the Iraqi authorities to reconsider their decision to imminently close Laylan camp and to ensure that future returns are made in a more transparent, voluntary, safe, and dignified manner.

MSF has been working in Iraq since 1991. With more than 1,500 staff in its projects countrywide, MSF provides free, high quality primary and secondary health care, surgery, and mental health for people regardless of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation. Additionally, MSF is supporting the country’s COVID-19 response in Baghdad and Mosul.