AL-ALAM, Iraq – Ali Salman has fled from one war zone to another over the past year.
The 27-year-old former police officer from Mosul spent two years in hiding with his wife and children after the so-called Islamic State militant group captured the Iraqi city in June 2014.
Late last year, he paid around $1,000 to smuggle his family across the border into Syria, where he took shelter in the al-Hol refugee camp, in an area mainly controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Shortly after, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces launched a battle to recapture Mosul from ISIS. Since the offensive began October, almost 15,000 Iraqis have fled to al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, among the over 200,000 people displaced by the fighting.
Ahead of the offensive and in its early days, many Iraqis in northwestern Mosul and Tel Afar had one option to escape: getting smuggled into Syria. The route has since been severed by forces fighting ISIS.
Those who survived described terrible scenes along the way, including one smugglers’ route through a minefield full of dozens of dead bodies, including those of children.
The Iraqi government launched a program to facilitate Iraqi refugees’ return from Syria in mid-November. A month later, local media said over 1,500 refugees had returned from the Syrian camp.
UNHCR spokesman in Syria Scott Craig told Refugees Deeply by email that the U.N. refugee agency does not facilitate Iraqi returns from al-Hol “because neither the means of return nor the situation upon return comply with UNHCR’s criteria for supporting voluntary returns, i.e., that they are taking place in safety and with dignity and are sustainable.”
But when the chance arose to go back to Iraq, Salman took it. ‘’I had heard they were letting former Mosul police join up again and fight’’ ISIS, he said. “And I wanted to take part.’’
Salman and others from the camp were taken in December on buses provided by the Iraqi government to camps in the town of al-Alam, just across the Tigris river from Tikrit in Iraq’s central Salah Ad-Din province.
When Salman went to Syria, he took his Iraqi government-issued ID with him. But when he arrived at al-Hol, camp authorities took it from him.
Many other residents of displacement camps in al-Alam told Refugees Deeply similar stories in January. Some said that not only IDs but also marriage contracts and other official documents had been taken from them and were not given back when they left. None had been provided with an explanation why.
The two camps at al-Alam host around 1,230 families, and a third camp under construction has space for a further 2,000 families, UNHCR communications and public information officer Andreas Needham told Refugees Deeply in an email in late January.
In the “al-Alam 2” camp, which hosts approximately 4,380 people, around 500 people do not have official government IDs, a camp management employee told Refugees Deeply, without specifying how many of them were returnees from Syria.
UNHCR’s Scott Craig told Refugees Deeply that confiscating IDs of refugees “is indeed the standard practice of the Kurdish camp management, despite UNHCR’s advocacy.”
“However, as a result of UNHCR’s advocacy, the refugees now obtain a copy of their documents,” Craig said in an email.
Contacted via WhatsApp by Refugees Deeply in late January, a Kurdish official who initially pledged to look into the matter failed to provide any rationale for the practice.
Living with No Identity
Salman now lives with his wife and three children in a small tent in al-Alam. On a freezing cold January afternoon in the camp, children, some not wearing shoes or coats, wandered between rows of white and blue tents, with mud-and-brick latrines down the gravel path between them.
Salman’s tent has a small gas-powered heater in the middle on the tarpaulin but no electricity. He has no cell phone, as they were strictly forbidden by ISIS militants in Mosul. Many people in the city buried theirs, he said.
But Salman’s most pressing problem, as for many others in the camp, is his lack of ID documents, as he can now neither prove who he is nor take part in the operations to retake his native city, he said.
Without an ID, returnees cannot receive government salaries and pensions, apply for jobs, register newborns or record marriages. And in a country dotted with checkpoints amid a precarious security situation, ID documents are necessary to travel even the shortest distance.
Wansa Hamoud Jaseem, 30, left Mosul because there was no medication available for her 12-year-old daughter’s congenital neurological problems.
Though they managed to get to Syria, her daughter died on a cold October night while they waited for 18 days to be admitted to the al-Hol camp. “There wasn’t even any bottled water anywhere near the camp to buy at first,” the mother of four said.
Jaseem also had her official ID taken from her in al-Hol, so she, like others Refugees Deeply spoke to in January in the al-Alam camp, is not allowed to leave the area enclosed by the camp perimeter fence.
She is happy to be back on Iraqi soil after the nightmare of Mosul and her time as a refugee in Syria. All she would say of the current conditions in the al-Alam camp was: ‘’It will get better, God willing.’’
Never miss an update. Sign up here for our Refugees Deeply newsletter to receive weekly updates, special reports and featured insights on one of the most critical issues of our time.