Image by IOM staff: FMH with Two Yazidi head-men from an unofficial camp , Iraq.
The displaced built their own places to escape and live. Now, many don’t want to leave…
‘Place,’ therefore, is a critical aspect of migration and social cohesion that requires a considered and cohesive approach rather than a cobbling together of social measures by NGOs and Government, so that the displaced, the stayees and the host communities are supported if people choose to stay or return.
Not all the displaced head to official camps in Iraq. Many families felt compelled to find alternative places. Some lived with family and friends, others endured places with inflated rental prices, precarious tenancy agreements, fickle landlords, over population, little employment opportunities and poor services.
The official camps, despite the NGO supported infrastructure, services, food and accommodation provided, represented a fearful place to many of the displaced. They were places where militarised screening processes happened, personal or property documentation was withheld, movement in and out of the camps was restricted and where internal social structures were risky and frightening (understandable, when one considers the unofficial narrative that ISIS affiliated families are present there and the impact such narratives would have on families wrestling with the trauma of violence and displacement). They were fraught places of social stigma and labelling by voyeuristic eyes. Image: An official Camp Ninewa, Iraq by FMH
Therefore, a solution to these hazardous places was to build their own camps.
I visited many sites where groups of displaced families had set up a series of precarious homes together. During and after the recent conflict with ISIS these sites otherwise known as ‘informal camps in unfinished buildings’ could be seen everywhere in Iraq, ranging from makeshift blue tarpaulin shelters in-between ramshackle buildings by the roadside, to camps in more fortunate inner-city locations, in and around abandoned building sites and in empty properties.
Three sites in particular appear to underpin an argument that Place is an underestimated actor in migration and displacement.
Image: Meeting displaced families in Mosul
In the out-buildings of a fish farm in the scrublands of a city, seven Shia families from Babil lived together. In an abandoned building site in an urban context in Northern Iraq, six Yazidi families from Ninewa had set up home. And in a disused farm storage facility, lived six families from Sinjar
All three family groups had familiar experiences of victimisation and violence, suffering prejudice, exclusion and much worse. They fled their homes and now lived in an environment with their displaced neighbours and extended family. On first impression the conditions appeared bleak and transient, which of course they were. However, after an afternoon of tea and conversations, the situation became clearer. These places provided security, shelter from the elements and an environment that fostered a collective goal to survive where the people pooled their resources (families sold belongings and shared the burden of providing fuel, food and electricity). These unofficial camps offered a platform from which to share the responsibilities of looking after the elderly and vulnerable, find employment and to look after the infants, whilst sending their older children to local primary schools.
Image: Yazidi children playing in unofficial camp by FMH
These camps had become part of the social fabric. The host communities helped provide food and clothes, children played together, and ethnic groups began to live in trust and tolerance of one and other, as they did in the past.
This is not to say all sites were this fortunate. Small camps were vandalised as social tensions developed over competition for work between host communities and the displaced. Many were broken down and their inhabitants moved to official camps as building sites began to operate again and the recovering government began to insist that the displaced people go home.
Home, however, would never be the same according to the displaced people I met. Some said they had little or no services where they lived, others explained that their villages were destroyed or were covered in IEDs. Others were afraid of the journey home, along the roads and through the roadblocks policed by militia. They told stories of many men disappearing en route, as police and the military checked paperwork and detained anyone who had no ID or whose name appeared on a list.
“No! We want to stay here, in our village our neighbours tried to kill us, and they did horrible things to many others or they know who did! How can we go home and live beside them again?” …. “This place is our home now!” Despite the fact that all of the people I spoke to said that they would like to go home - where their memories of childhood and familiar landscapes are, they just don’t want to, or simply cannot.
‘Place,’ therefore, is a critical aspect of migration and social cohesion that requires a considered and cohesive approach rather than a cobbling together of social measures by NGOs and Government, so that the displaced, the stayees and the host communities are supported if people choose to stay or return. FMH
Image: Small unofficial camp in City outskirts by FMH
Image: A youngster from Shai Family displaced from Babil Iraq by FMH