ERBIL, Iraq – Families who returned to little more than decimated homes and towns following the defeat of ISIS forces across Northern Iraq have created a new challenge - a reverse migration flow of those who decided living in tent city or ramshackle housing camps is better than the alternative of homelessness and uncertainty.
“We heard Mosul was safe so we went back in October, but when we returned our house was destroyed. We had no money to rent,” Basma Aiden, a 40-year-old mother of nine, told Fox News from the Baharka camp outside of Erbil. “There were no jobs. We decided it was better to live in a tent. At least we can be comfortable here. There is safety and security.”
Officials with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said they had hoped to close the camps after ISIS was driven out of the area last year. But that hasn't happened.
“Since the end of last year – we have been experiencing a reverse flow,” Hoshang Mohamed, Director of the Joint Crisis Center in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), told Fox News. “The numbers at the camps are accumulatively increasing again. We have waiting lists.”
Mohamed said that between January and April alone, more than 4,500 people who had left for Mosul or other formerly ISIS-held areas had returned to their region. An average day of 40 families a day have been registering at the camp as returnees.
“They are coming barefoot because of lack of services, and many are being threatened by militia groups,” he continued. “This is a real concern for us. We want to encourage people to go back, but to go back with dignity. If you look at the west side of Mosul, how can anyone survive that?”
The west side – also known as the Old City – was largely destroyed when ISIS was driven out last summer. And the area remains awash with bodies and booby traps.
But even the east side of the city, which was freed earlier in 2017 with significantly less destruction, offers little in the way of a livelihood.
After two months moving between relatives’ homes, Aiden said she and her family retreated north in December, to the same camp they had lived in since the summer of 2014.
Some officials have expressed private concerns that many internally displaced persons (IDPs) had perhaps become “too dependent” on the camp system. But most insisted such cases were rare, and argued those displaced genuinely wanted to put their broken lives back together.
“Some people are even going home to waiting electricity and water bills,” Mohamed said. “Despite the fact that they were in camps and it was ISIS living in their homes.”
And for Khatar Khalaf Rashid, a 53-year-old father of 14 from Salahuddin – which was freed from ISIS control in October 2016 – the decision to return was a matter of life or death. Rashid, after hearing his village “was safe,” went back in February 2017.
His family rebuilt their obliterated home, but the sectarian threats from what he claims to be unofficial Shia militias intensified. “Every family has its own militias, these are not organized, these are gangs and they want the Sunnis out,” Rashid avowed.
Around 8pm one night last June, he recalled, his new home was attacked by gunmen, and his brother and nephew were killed. His family then received threatening phone calls warning that the family had just three days to leave.
“When the time was up we went. We left everything, all our new furniture,” Rashid lamented, from his small but cozy tent complete with a television, mini refrigerator and air-conditioning unit. “We will spend our entire lives at their camp, otherwise we will leave Iraq.”
At the height of the ISIS invasion from 2014 to 2015, the KRG hosted some 1.8 million Iraqi displaced persons. Most of those - around 1.2 million - are still in the Kurdish north. Just nine of the scores of camps set up after ISIS have been closed, Mohamed said, with the future of the rest now in limbo.
Several of the returning families Fox News spoke to at the camps said schooling was a deciding factor in their return. Yet for many, the possibility of returning anytime in the near future seems an impossibility.
Iraq has asked its affluent allies, including the United States, for more money to address the problem. Four billion dollars was offered at a fundraising conference in Kuwait to address the matter in February, which isn't enough.
“It is not just the buildings and the houses, but the morale of people has been demoralized,” KRG spokesperson Safeen Dizayee said. “What will be the future for them?”
Dizayee vowed they will not force any displaced person to return to whatever is left of their homes and neighborhoods. However, the dwindling of ISIS militarily has also meant less aid money and donations, leading to deteriorating conditions at already dire displacement camps and concern over how long they can remain open.
“There is donation fatigue. And there is a heavy burden on the hospitals in the region too,” Dizayee acknowledged, adding that many are coming north even from Baghdad for free medical services.
Sattar Norroz, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Immigration in Baghdad, concurred that “reverse flow” has indeed become a growing problem.
“Some families come back and find their houses damaged or exploded and that there is no infrastructure,” he told Fox News, denying allegations families are being forced out of camps in Baghdad’s bid to resume life in the post-ISIS era. “We only want to encourage people to go back, and help them.”
A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also affirmed that while returnees are “in the minority,” they include highly vulnerable families. And it’s a situation refugee officials are taking very seriously.
“We take details from people registering in our camps, and the most common reasons given by people returning to camps are economic: a shortage of employment opportunities and inability to pay rent,” added the representative.