Iraq is considered the homeland of the Yazidi community, as Yazidism’s holiest sites are located in the KRI. Between 700,000 to 750,000 Yazidis lived in Iraq in 2005. By 2014, this had decreased by 200,000 and then by a further 90,000 between 2014 and 2017.
Humanitarian situation in IDP camps in the KRI
Over 360,000 Yazidis in IDP camps in the KRI live in precarious conditions and do not receive adequate humanitarian support. Among other concerns, Yazidis in IDP camps in the KRI frequently mention that:
- The tents in which Yazidi families live have not been replaced for nearly three years and many are in a terrible condition. These tents are not warm enough for the next winter;
- Electricity is available only a few hours per day which is especially difficult during summer when average temperatures fall between 40 – 50 C.
- The frequent burning of garbage in and nearby camps, and the vicinity of the camps to oil wells means the quality of the air Yazidis breathe on a daily basis is poor;
- The sanitation profile in the camps is deteriorating, which has led to outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and skin diseases. The sewage system requires structural improvements, while access to clean drinking water needs to be guaranteed; and
- Health centers in the camps do not have adequate medicines, medical supplies or specialized staff (including specialist doctors and nurses).
Mental health services and psychosocial support
Humanitarian aid workers have identified a serious lack of access to mental health and psychosocial support services in camps and shelters for displaced Yazidis, including those who were formerly held captive by IS. The risk of suicide among Yazidi women and girls who have escaped IS captivity is high, and there have been documented incidents of suicide and attempted suicide by displaced Yazidis in these camps and shelters.
Yazidi boys recruited by IS to undergo forced conversion and military training require ongoing psychological support to address the impact such abuse has caused. Yazidi women and girls will require ongoing post-trauma care. In addition, every effort needs to be made to ensure that the abuse suffered by survivors can be forensically documented so that the perpetrators can one day be held accountable for their crimes. Access to professionals with specialist expertise in treating children and victims of sexual and gender-based violence is essential to ensuring survivors are provided the best services possible.
As IS-controlled cities and towns where Yazidis are being held captive are liberated, increasing numbers of Yazidis are managing to escape from captivity every day. Once they escape, survivors require urgent and specialized support. Some of this support is, and has been, provided on the frontline by the KRG, the UN and its various agencies, foreign state institutions, aid agencies and NGOs including Yazda, but the resources have not been sufficient. They must be ongoing and tailored to each survivor, some of whom have now endured years of sexual abuse and torture. The needs of these survivors must be analyzed by professionals and specific programs developed in response.
A ground-breaking initiative to support women and girls returning from IS captivity and their families was implemented by the German State of Baden-Württemberg. In 2015, Baden-Württemberg dispatched a dedicated team to the KRI to identify the most vulnerable women and girls, 1,100 of whom were relocated to Germany and provided with specialized support under the Special Quota program. Nadia Murad was one of the beneficiaries of this program, which has been replicated in part by other countries such as Canada and Australia. Canada is expected to resettle 1,200 Yazidis while Australia has to date granted several hundred humanitarian visas to Yazidi refugees, including some IS survivors. But around 2,000 survivors are in urgent need in Iraq and as more and more are expected return to freedom with the liberation of Mosul and other IS strongholds, there will be a particular need for similar initiatives to be replicated on a large scale.
In addition, Yazda would welcome the creation of special programs to temporarily send those survivors who are suffering from critical health conditions that cannot be adequately treated in Iraq to obtain specialist treatment abroad. This is especially relevant for children and survivors of sexual crimes.
Education is crucial for vulnerable minorities such as Yazidis to be equipped with skills and knowledge that will ultimately empower individuals and their community. For decades, however, Yazidis and other Iraqi minorities encountered institutional discrimination in the education sector, and this continues to be the case both in Iraq and within the KRI.
Education infrastructure was limited even before IS attacked in August 2014. Larger Yazidi villages like Tel-Azer, Sibaia, Dogry and Khanasor, with populations of between 25,000 to 35,000, had only one to three primary schools and one high school. Many smaller villages like Bakra, Bahrava, Hardan, Karsi and Bara, had none.
In general, the quality of schooling was poor. Yazidi areas were deliberately excluded from the KRG and Iraqi education plan that resulted in the construction of thousands of schools, institutes and universities across the country since 2003. Despite these government education policies, no universities were built in Sinjar and therefore access to higher education for Yazidis has been extremely limited. Further educational challenges arise from the fact that Yazidi villages are in a disputed area. The KRG and Central Government of Iraq (CGI) each imposed its curriculum on Yazidis in different languages. The Arabic curriculum is necessary to be eligible to apply for Iraqi universities, but the few schools opened by the KRG offered the Kurdish curriculum only. Those Yazidis who were able to access Iraqi universities, for instance in Mosul, suffered episodes of persecution and violence, such as being threatened and targeted by Sunni extremists as early as 2003. Many lost their lives, and others were forced to abandon their studies or were transferred to universities in the KRI. The KRG has continued to accommodate some Yazidi students in KRI universities.
IS’s occupation of Sinjar exacerbated existing problems. Most of the schools in Yazidi villages were bombed and destroyed and very few in the northern side of the district were re-opened. Thousands of Yazidis were forced to leave school and have now been out of the education system for over three years.
Although international NGOs such as UNICEF provide education programs in some IDP camps in KRI, these are insufficient to meet the needs of thousands of Yazidi children. There remain issues with lack of staff, security, unsafe buildings, and basic services such as electricity and drinking water. Access to schooling by Yazidi children has been worsened by the presence of armed forces in the area and difficulties in returning to Sinjar.
The provision of education by Yazda has included the construction of a school in Bakra village for more than 300 children, as well as informal mobile education programs in the Sinjar area for those who have not been able to learn for the past three years. Yazda has also been providing informal education and training for survivors of IS enslavement as part of the psychological and psychosocial program, and cultural preservation courses for children to ensure the continuity of Yazidi religious and cultural tradition. In 2015, Yazda opened Al-Taakhi high school with the support of the KRG in Duhok city, for more than 1000 students. Finally, Yazda was able to facilitate the acceptance of 10 students to study at the University of Milano-Bicocca in 2016.
It is only with government support and action though, that Yazidi children will be able to access adequate schooling, and higher education. This will require supporting the rebuilding of educational facilities in the Sinjar region, funding the construction of a university in Sinjar, and removing obstacles to Yazidi tertiary students in the meantime. More broadly, it requires consultation by governments with the Yazidi communities as part of the development of future education policies.
Financial and employment challenges
As a result of the genocide perpetrated by IS, most Yazidis have lost almost everything they once owned. The 3 August 2014 attack led the vast majority of Yazidis to flee their homes with only a few clothes and personal belongings, leaving behind properties and official documents. IS looted all Yazidi possessions and destroyed most of their houses, schools, institutions and religious shrines in the Sinjar and Nineveh Plain regions.
As well as having no remaining assets, Yazidi IDPs and refugees face unemployment and poverty. The unemployment rate in Yazidi areas in Iraq and KRI is over 70%, much higher than in any other region, as Yazidis continue to suffer employment discrimination on the basis of their religion and due to lack of jobs generally.
Reducing discrimination against Yazidis via education programs and legislative changes would assist Yazidis to access the job market. For those who cannot find work, options for governments to consider include a monthly financial assistance program for those with special needs (orphans, those with medical conditions etc), and a micro-financing scheme that could provide small grants or loans to assist Yazidi families in setting up small businesses.
Obstacles to Return
Survivors of the genocide, including those who were able to flee before being captured, yearn to return to their homeland with assurances of security, peace and stability. To date, this has been possible only for a small minority of Yazidis – fewer than 52,000 people are estimated to have been able to resettle in Sinjar including approximately 10,000 in Sardishte camp on the Sinjar Mountain.
Return rates have increased over July and August 2017. Yazda estimates that 60 to 120 families are returning to Sinjar each day. This has been accelerated by several factors, including widespread feelings of instability due to the forthcoming KRI independence referendum scheduled to take place on 25 September 2017.
However, there are still serious obstacles to return, including the lack of inhabitable homes and suitable infrastructure, with entire villages and towns having been flattened. On 28 April 2016, the Iraqi Parliament passed a bill under which the town of Sinjar was considered a ‘disaster city’. According to the Mayor of Sinjar, Mahama Khalil, about 80-85% of Sinjar District has been destroyed by IS and rebuilding the district will require significant investment. Many of the houses and buildings in the Yazidi areas, especially on the southern side of Sinjar District, are still covered with landmines and other explosives, making it extremely dangerous to enter. In addition, while the whole of Sinjar has now been liberated from IS, in-fighting between various factions and armed groups means that the security situation in the area is still volatile, and Yazidis do not feel empowered to begin the rebuilding process.
Conflict among rival groups for control over Sinjar areas has created additional administrative and security hurdles, such as the restriction of movement of goods and denial of permission to access liberated areas, thereby impeding reconstruction works. Since the liberation of some Yazidi areas in 2015, no new service projects have been initiated because of this economic blockade. As a result, the lack of essential services such as the provision of clean drinking water, electricity and fuel, and access to basic medical services makes the living conditions in these regions extremely hard. In order for Yazidis who wish to contribute to the rebuilding process and return to the liberated areas, the movement of goods and building materials needs to be facilitated by authorities. Further, the cost of rebuilding Yazidi areas in Sinjar and Nineveh Plain must be supported by the establishment of a dedicated fund, which would be administered and supervised efficiently and transparently.
Resettlement in Third Countries
The solutions to the issues outlined above are complex and long term. In the meantime, and with little hope for rebuilding in the near future, many Yazidis are applying for refugee status in third countries. According to the Directorate of Yazidi affairs in the KRI, 90,000 Yazidis have fled Iraq since 2014 and about 500 people were killed or are missing while attempting to flee Iraq.
To date, Yazidis have been accepted as refugees in Germany, Canada, Australia, France, and Portugal. It is important that other countries take into consideration the situation facing Yazidis in Iraq in the development of their humanitarian visa and refugee programs, and take the initiative to provide safe haven to Yazidis applying for refugee status.