MSF staff witnessing the closure of Laylan camp. © Alex Dunne/MSF

Iraq: MSF warns of dire humanitarian consequences if Laylan camp is closed

Early yesterday morning trucks arrived at Laylan camp, in Iraq’s Kirkuk governorate, in preparation for moving residents back to their areas of origin elsewhere in Iraq. Camp residents expressed their fears of being returned against their will to staff from international medical organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who are providing healthcare in the camp. MSF is deeply concerned about the humanitarian consequences of such rushed camp closures on the already vulnerable displaced people without offering a safe and sustainable resolution.

Since October 2020, some 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 for many people, returning home is a dream come true, for others the insecurity, lack of shelter and absence of services that await them make camp closures a nightmare.

Displaced for a multiple reasons

“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 neighbours went back, they were verbally assaulted and had to hide from local people – they were afraid they would be hurt,” adds the woman.

Laylan camp: bags containing the belongings of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) being returned to their place origin.Alex Dunne/MSF

More than 7,000 people currently live in Laylan camp, most of them women and children.

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 Iraq’s towns like Hawija and Salah Al-Din, forcing many people to flee their homes. Several camp residents told MSF that they have nothing to return to.

Precarious living conditions outside of Laylan camp

“Our house has been destroyed,” said one 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 healthcare for displaced people outside the camp is limited.

“MSF is treating 300 patients with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the camp; they require uninterrupted lifelong treatment and care,” says 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 programme 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,” says Badshah. “There are eight confirmed COVID-19 cases in the camp’s isolation area. It is not clear how the patients would be transferred and how quickly they would get access to medical care.”   

A dismantled IDP shelter in Laylan camp following the return of its occupants to their place of origin.Alex Dunne/MSF

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 in Iraq

MSF has been working in Iraq since 1991. With more than 1,500 staff in its projects countrywide, MSF provides free, high quality healthcare for all people regardless of race, religion, gender or political affiliation.

MSF delivers primary and secondary healthcare, services for expectant and new mothers, treatment for chronic diseases, surgery and rehabilitation for war-wounded, mental health support and health education activities. We currently work in the governorates of Baghdad, Nineveh and Kirkuk. We have also supported local health facilities in the southern provinces of Najaf and Dhi Qar in recent months with preparedness for mass casualty incidents. In 2019, MSF provided over 45,000 consultations for patients across Iraq for those suffering from chronic diseases, as well as over 34,000 consultations for maternity and reproductive health.