I have spent much of the last three years in camps originally built to house those displaced by the fighting between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). While many families who fled their home have been able to return to their towns and villages, one group remains stuck in these camps with no clear future in Iraq: the families of accused ISIS fighters and sympathizers.
Here’s how we got here. In 2003, US forces invaded Iraq, getting rid of Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq for 24 years and a Sunni Muslim who targeted different minority populations with his brutal regime, including Shia Muslim groups. After 2003, these Shia groups who had been victimized rose up and, in some areas, took their revenge for years of abuse out on the Sunni population, leading to a brutal sectarian war in 2006 to 2008. Some within the Sunni community, angered by this new period of abuse and complete impunity for crimes committed by the mostly Shia state, formed extremist groups that eventually became the Islamic State or ISIS. ISIS took control of major cities across Iraq in 2014, and continued to control territory in the country until the end of 2017, brutally governing hundreds of thousands of people.
Now ISIS has lost most of these areas, with the Iraqi government back in control. The government and local communities across Iraq have now embraced revenge themselves, taking it out on thousands of captured men and boys, prosecuting them for ISIS affiliation in deeply flawed trials that frequently employ torture and often end in the death penalty. They are also punishing the families of these defendants—women and children .
Authorities are preventing the families from renewing ID cards, birth certificates and other documentation every Iraqi needs in order to get access to a job, healthcare, welfare, or enroll in school. Without these documents, families are unable to even safely leave their home or tent, and walk down the street; without documents, they could get arrested at any of the hundreds of checkpoints across the country.
The state has effectively rendered these families prisoners, with many stuck in the camps that had initially provided them refuge from conflict. Not only are these practices illegal — you can’t punish a child for the acts of their father — but they also jeopardize Iraq’s future stability. In my three years here, I have seen the cost of these policies up close. These families are being further marginalized and pushed into a corner. It won’t be long before the remnants of ISIS morph into a new extremist group, and I worry that they will prey on the children from these families, children without access to education or employment, and recruit from their ranks.