By Lin Taylor
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Civilians who have fled Falluja should not be coerced to return because of poor conditions in displacement camps or by Iraqi authorities, aid agencies say, as insecurity remains rife and explosives have not been cleared in the city.
A report on Thursday from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said Iraqi authorities will allow civilians displaced by the assault on Islamic State-held Falluja to start returning home as early as August.
The UNHCR, noting the government’s plans, said the level of destruction will make their return difficult in the short term and explosives would pose a hazard to residents.
It said authorities in Anbar governorate have reportedly asked all displaced “government education employees” to return to work by July 12 or risk losing their salary. They have also asked for volunteers to help clean the city by August, UNHCR said.
“It’s important that people feel they can make a choice freely and are not forced into making a decision,” Caroline Gluck, UNHCR’s senior public information officer in Baghdad, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
She said she was concerned some people “will be coerced into return before they feel it will be safe for them and their families to go home.”
More than 85,000 people fled their homes during a month-long campaign that ended on Sunday when Iraqi authorities declared they had completely recaptured the city, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad.
The civilians at government-run camps, who make up about a third of Falluja’s total population before Islamic State took over two and a half years ago, are currently relying on handouts from the U.N. and aid groups.
Lack of funding means many do not have adequate shelter, food or water amid temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). Humanitarian agencies fear poor sanitation could spread infectious diseases like cholera and skin diseases in addition to exacerbating chronic illnesses.
“While it is understandable that families want to return as early as possible, and many face harsh conditions in the camps, it is important to ensure conditions are in place for that return to take place in safety and to be sustainable,” Gluck said.
The U.N. reported in April that explosives planted by Islamic State killed dozens of Iraqi civilians who returned to Ramadi despite warnings that much of the western city remained unsafe nearly four months after its recapture from the militants in December 2015.
Aid agency Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said it was “highly unlikely” that Falluja was safe enough for civilians to return to, as it was only recaptured several days ago.
NRC said conditions in displacement camps needed to improve so civilians could make an informed choice.
“(This is) so they feel as comfortable as possible, so no-one feels that their only option is to go back and possibly face any danger on their way back or in Falluja,” Becky Bakr Abdulla, an NRC spokeswoman in Iraq, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“This is no time for rushing… (The government) needs to give them enough information so they can make the decisions themselves without feeling pressured to return home.”
(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, global land rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, women’s rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)