BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities are increasing pressure on families in camps in western Anbar province, displaced during the war against the Islamic State group, to return to their homes ahead of national elections in May, international aid agencies warned on Wednesday.
The 2014 IS blitz that resulted in the capture of large areas of territory in northern and western Iraq, and the more-than-three-year war against IS that followed, displaced nearly 6 million people. More than half have returned to their homes, but about 2.6 million people are still uprooted.
The Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and the Norwegian Refugee Council said the drive comes as Iraqi officials have suggested they would like to see people move back to vote because it isn't currently possible to vote in displacement camps.
"It's tragic to think that people feel safer in camps than in their homes when this conflict has supposedly ended," said Petr Kostohryz, NRC country director in Iraq.
The Iraqi government denies forcing internally displaced families to return against their will.
"Though the government policy and main goal is to encourage a quick return of displaced families to their areas of origin, this must be voluntarily and not by forcing them to do so," the government spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, told The Associated Press.
"The government orders ... are clear: any return must be voluntarily, not against their will," he added. "Any party that acts against these orders will face punishment."
The 32-page report, titled "The Long Road Home," includes interviews with people living in displacement camps in Anbar. It found that 84 percent of the displaced families feel safer in camps than back home, and more than 50 percent have homes that are damaged or destroyed.
Some of the families, the agencies said, face the possibility of death or serious injury from unexploded bombs, while lack of services and retribution against those perceived to have links with IS have pushed others into secondary displacement.
"People are afraid of retribution, unexploded bombs, or simply have nowhere to return to," Kostohryz said. "There can be no hope for peace in Iraq if the authorities cannot guarantee that people can go back home safely."
Between November and December 2017, about 9,000 people were forced from three displacement camps in Anbar back to their homes as well as others in the capital, Baghdad, the report showed.
The report said many of the returns "are premature and do not meet international standards of safety, dignity, and voluntariness."
In December, Iraq's government declared victory over IS. But the victory came at a high price as the war left thousands of homes and infrastructure partially damaged or destroyed at a time when the country is also struggling with economic woes.