“The problem is not rebuilding houses, but rebuilding mentally to live together peacefully.”
Yezidi woman representative, Erbil,
Kurdistan region, Iraq, September 2016
“Christians are not only part of the history of this land, but also need to be part of its future.”
Chaldean male religious leader,
Erbil, Kurdistan region, Iraq, September 2016
“Going back to do what? Besides the fact that our houses are destroyed, people there are destroyed too. Reconciliation and healing is a long process [that] many of us are not ready to go through. The Syria we knew no longer exists.”
Young male Christian Syrian refugee,
Beirut, Lebanon, February 2016
Although minorities from Syria and Iraq have some shared humanitarian experiences, there is a stark contrast between different groups’ experiences of discrimination and conflict. These different experiences have left an imprint on individuals and communities, which influence how they see their future. For example, the precarious situation of minorities in Iraq has persisted for a decade longer than in Syria. And minority groups in Syria and Iraq who have been intentionally targeted for extinction or permanent displacement have a significantly different experience from other minorities.
This chapter explores the perspectives of Syrian and Iraqi minority groups on the possibility of their return, resettlement, reintegration and reconciliation in their home areas. It maps similarities and differences between and among those groups, and between minorities and the majority community, to better understand the opportunities and hindrances for effective short- and long-term support strategies.
Factors influencing displaced people’s return
The causes of their displacement shape refugees’ feelings, hopes and plans for returning to their home country or area. Many Syrian Christian refugees involved in research for this study said they would like to go back to Syria if the war ends.170 The most common reasons for wanting to return were attachments to their country, the fact that their homes and occupations are in Syria, and the difficulties of life outside their own country. Those surveyed by NCA in Lebanon noted that differences between religious groups have intensified, to the extent that they may now be irreconcilable and make life back at home difficult. However, Iraqi Christian refugees surveyed were adamant that there would be no possibility of returning, even in the absence of IS. The sense of their sudden betrayal by Muslim neighbours and friends – and the trauma that minority communities have suffered, and continue to suffer, in Iraq – means that minorities who fled to neighbouring countries had few plans to return.171
For refugees in Lebanon, lack of security and loss of homes and jobs were the most commonly cited reasons for not wanting to return.172 When insecurity escalates and families from a minority group start leaving an area, this leads to distortions in the housing market. Other minorities try to sell their properties and leave as well but in the absence of buyers from the same community, members of the majority community can push the price down.173 Assyrians from Al-Hassakah reported on land confiscation by the Kurds,174 and there are unconfirmed reports by Assyrians of having to sell their real estate because of pressure from Kurds.175
Destruction or loss of housing, land or property, including documentation, is also a factor hindering return in Iraq.176 Yezidis and Christians had been selling their houses in Mosul for minimum prices,177 closing the door to return. Recognising this fact and its negative impact for Mosul, a Sunni Muslim religious leader in the Kurdistan region encouraged minorities to have a long-term perspective on returning home: “Victims are to have courage and patience. Maybe this generation will not need these properties, but the next generation of Christians will.” However, in the face of their suffering, Christian leaders found it hard to ask Christians leaving Mosul to have the strength to return.178
In Sinjar, no Yezidi ownership of houses or lands is registered, complicating both selling and reclaiming property. As result of the Arabisation phase, Arabs held titles to their homes in this area, while Yezidis did not.179 In cultures where customary land tenure is prevalent, such as that of the Yezidis, the particular situation of women must be considered when planning the return of displaced communities. According to Yezidi tradition, inheritances are habitually divided equally among a deceased man’s sons (or brothers and male cousins if he has no sons) – daughters and wives do not receive a share. This is even more of an issue because it is far from uncommon to find women-headed Yezidi households as a result of armed persecution.180
For IDPs in the Kurdistan region, security is paramount. Some 59% of respondents to the NCA survey said that the total defeat of IS would be the most important factor in deciding to return home and 26% said they would require security guarantees from a trusted security actor. Reconstruction of homes and clearing mines and explosives were the other most important factors cited by these respondents.
A wide spectrum of IDPs want security provisions from a trusted actor. Many minority group research participants felt betrayed by the Iraqi federal authorities for their inexplicable military withdrawal from Mosul, and for the federal authorities’ failure to mount any meaningful military, protection or humanitarian effort in response to the crisis.181 Yezidi representatives expressed similar sentiments with regard to the peshmerga. They believe these forces withdrew from Yezidi-populated areas while providing misleading information about the life-threatening danger ahead and refusing to give Yezidis weapons for their own defence.182
Some Yezidi families have returned to villages in Sinjar district on the northern side of Mount Sinjar that have been retaken by Kurdish forces. According to a Yezidi organisation, most communities in that area were inhabited by Yezidi farmers. Returnee farmers have begun planting and are supporting many IDPs from the mountain’s south side who have taken shelter there but received little or no aid from NGOs or governments.183
On the southern side of Sinjar Mountain, only the city of Sinjar has been retaken from IS – most Yezidi villages remain under IS control, though this could change soon with the potential liberation of the Mosul area from IS forces. However, most Yezidis have not returned to Sinjar city. The reasons for this are disputed, with interviewees mentioning the security situation, mass destruction of the city, lack of trust in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) forces as security providers, and political disputes between the KDP and YBŞ as factors that have prevented resettlement. Many Yezidis have joined the YBŞ or other independent militias, and have established a Self-Administrative Council to develop local governance because they no longer trust KDP hegemony in the area. Areas in Sinjar to the west of Sinune village and towards the border with Syria are reportedly under the control of these Yezidi militias, while areas to the east are under KDP control.184 In connection to those political disputes, Yezidi research participants denounced the unofficial economic blockade in Sinjar, where only small amounts of food for immediate consumption can be brought in,185 and resettlement and rehabilitation is hampered.
As indicated by Kaka’i, Shaback, Yezidi and Christian respondents, another requirement for minorities before considering a return home is legislative and constitutional guarantees. In theory, the Iraqi Constitution caters to religious minorities, providing them with guarantees of political representation, administrative rights and rights linked to religious freedom. Yet some minorities expressed concern that these rights are not mentioned explicitly in the text, and questioned whether references to Islam as the official religion of Iraq and a foundation for its legislation may at some point be used to overrule other rights provided in the constitution.186 The problem of the Iraqi Constitution has been enforceability. While the constitution acknowledges the multi-religious and multi-ethnic nature of Iraq, state entities have not implemented its provisions in response to the increasing vulnerability of religious minorities.
Similarly, certain groups of refugees face their own barriers to returning to their countries. Many Syrian Christian men187 fled the country to avoid military service in the army, which prevents them from returning to government-controlled areas unless certain guarantees are given.
Sunnis and Armenian Orthodox refugees in Lebanon were the only denominations surveyed by NCA where more than 30% of respondents indicated a desire to return (33% and 42%, respectively). This is consistent with qualitative findings from interviews conducted for this study. Although Sunnis have lost as much property, and been as victimised, as other religious groups, the perception is that they are more focused on going back, and may not share Shias’ fears about security and stigmatisation after their return, as they are more confident of being accepted in the communities they fled. As for Armenian Orthodox refugees, a possible dissatisfaction with resettlement options could explain their desire of some to return to their home areas. Armenian Orthodox are described as a strong, community-based group that wants to remain together, and they are a relatively large group compared with other Christian settlements.188
Differences between Syrians and Iraqis are also notable in their desire to emigrate. Two-thirds (67%) of Iraqi IDP respondents currently living in the Kurdistan region reported that they intended to emigrate to another country at some point.189 In Syria, those longing to leave the country represent one-third (31%) of the surveyed population.190 For refugees, the trends are similar but intensified: in Lebanon, virtually all Iraqi refugees (98%) and more than two-thirds of Syrian respondents (78%) surveyed by NCA wanted to emigrate.191
The desire to leave their country of origin is significantly higher among religious minorities, especially Christians. In Syria, 35% of Christians and 8% of Muslims surveyed wanted to emigrate;192 In the Kurdistan region, 65% of Christians wanted to leave, in contrast with 12% of Muslims. The desire to leave the Kurdistan region is strongest among Yezidis (85% of Yezidi respondents). This percentage is higher than, but not far from, the estimate of a Yezidi organisation: “If there would be [the] opportunity tomorrow, more than 75% of Yezidis would leave Iraq as they do not see [a] safe future here.”193
According to statistics from the local Chaldean Archdiocese, 3,000 Chaldean families left Erbil in the Kurdistan region between June 2014 and June 2015.194 The relatively high emigration rates of Christians from Iraq and Syria can be attributed to push and pull factors. Whereas push factors largely apply to religious minority and majority groups alike, some minority groups were specifically targeted for violence or driven out because of their religious identity. Pull factors have been particularly significant for Christians. Unlike some other groups, Christians can count on networks abroad. Furthermore, there is an impression among Syrian and Iraqi Christians across the region that some countries welcome Christian refugees, making it easier to integrate there and not be viewed as a threat by host communities.195
Survey data highlights two factors that decreased a respondent’s desire to emigrate – being older and being Muslim. In Syria, Alawite respondents and those residing in the municipality of Damascus or Latakia were less likely to want to leave, possibly due to their higher levels of support for the Assad government and greater sense of safety.196
Kaka’i representatives interviewed for this study reported low emigration rates, but this seems to be more the result of challenges in the emigration process than a lack of desire to emigrate. These informants stated that, since others wrongly perceive them as Muslim – including those responsible for emigration applications – they are not deemed as vulnerable as they really are. They believe that their harassment and lack of acceptance by Muslims and IS are not considered in their plea for emigration.197
Some minority groups directly targeted by Islamic militant groups, and those who have lost their lands, often see resettlement abroad as their only way out and flee en masse. Some groups’ current experience of prosecution and displacement needs to be viewed through the lens of historic massacres, displacement and self-preservation. The prospect of return among such groups that have strong collective memories are minimal or non-existent. The Assyrian community is a case in point: some 8,000 women, men and children from this community have come to Lebanon as refugees since the start of the Syrian crisis.198 Once settled with assistance from their church, the main priority for this community was to initiate emigration to a third country.199 In September 2016, 185 people (45 families) in an Assyrian parish on the outskirts of Beirut planned to travel to Australia; another 90 people had confirmed emigration plans and tickets to leave the country in October. According to the church, practically all Assyrian refugees apply to an embassy for resettlement, most commonly through private sponsorship programmes.200
There is stark contrast between the way that Iraqis and Syrians see the possibility of reconciliation and coexistence with their fellow nationals following the conflict. In general, Iraqis’ sense of hope on this matter is significantly weaker than that of Syrians.
There are also differences between minorities from the same country, most likely as a result of different conflict experiences. In the Kurdistan region, respondents’ attitudes are markedly different between camp and non-camp residents. Christians who live outside the camps, were far more optimistic than other groups on the possibility of treating each other fairly in the future and forgiving the past.201 Yezidis were more pessimistic than Muslims and Christians in all of their assessments, particularly in their ability to forgive the past and trust others in the future.202 Among Yezidis, women were more negative than men about the prospect of reconciliation with Muslim neighbours.203 There is little doubt that this contrast is related to the targeting of Yezidis in the conflict, and the extreme violence and suffering that Yezidi women and girls have endured. Resentment of the security forces tasked to protect them, and with some Muslim neighbours who allegedly supported and collaborated with IS, runs deep among Yezidis.
When considering the possibility of reconciliation and coexistence with fellow Syrians following the conflict, Syrian IDPs were particularly sceptical, possibly reflecting the extreme disruption and dislocation they have experienced. In particular, IDPs were more pessimistic when considering the possibility of avoiding future war and respecting each other’s religion. Non-Muslims were significantly more sceptical about whether various groups would be able to treat each other fairly in future.204 While Syrians overall tended not to have a positive view of the future, those from Daraa and Al Hasakah were particularly pessimistic.205 This was confirmed in three sets of discussions in Lebanon with different groups of Assyrians refugees from Al Hasakah.206
For Iraqi religious minorities from the Nineveh Plains, the idea of returning home runs in parallel with advances in the truth-seeking process. This process has been strengthened by official declarations that IS abuses against minorities constituted genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, different Yezidi groups believe these declarations have yet to produce concrete changes on the ground.207 There is widespread support among the Yezidi community for bringing their case to the International Court of Justice. However, many people lack an understanding of how this process works and what sort of timeline it would follow.208 The fact that Iraq is not party to the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, is the main roadblock in this process.
Positive efforts by the KRG to collect testimonies to ensure international recognition of violations against Yezidis are received with skepticism by the community, as they are being linked with the 1988 Anfal Campaign and thus perceived by minorities as part of some strategy to establish Kurdish dominance over Sinjar.209 There is no trust among Yezidis in Iraqi courts ability to deliver transitional justice – they perceive the Iraqi justice system to be closely tied to political parties and affiliations and unable to hold perpetrators with high social or political standing to account. For transitional justice to proceed, evidence of crimes committed against minorities needs to be researched and preserved. Beyond paving the way for criminal prosecution, truth-finding efforts are crucial for enabling individuals and families to bring closure, and for communities to heal.
Minority research participants from Iraq also linked the prospects of reconciliation – and thus of returning home – to combating both prejudices against minorities and the ideology of radical Islam. There is a degree of consensus among minorities in describing educational materials that portray non-Islamic Iraqis in a way that makes them seem second-class citizens, and even dehumanises them. According to research participants, this happens in both regular schools and in Muslim education centres, even in the Kurdistan region.210 Similarly, the media and Muslim religious leaders have a role to play in shutting down radicalism, condemning extremism and disseminating messages of respect and unity among Iraqis of different faiths.211
Chapter 3 – The humanitarian contexts in Syria and Iraq