NUM­BER OF IN­TER­NALLY DIS­PLACED PEO­PLE DOU­BLES

▶ Al­most 4.5 mil­lion Mena res­i­dents fled to safety in their coun­tries in 2017

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - SOFIA BARBARANI

The num­ber of in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple in the Mid­dle East and North Africa al­most dou­bled last year, with about 4.5 mil­lion forced to flee their homes to es­cape con­flict and vi­o­lence.

This statis­tic, un­der­scor­ing the scale of hu­man flight within coun­tries, merely com­pounds the al­ready huge num­bers of refugees who have crossed bor­ders to es­cape war.

The num­ber of those af­fected – about 12,000 peo­ple a day last year were in­ter­nally dis­placed across the Mid­dle East alone – was al­most twice the fig­ure, 2.4 mil­lion, recorded 12 months pre­vi­ously.

A re­port by the In­ter­nal Dis­place­ment Mon­i­tor­ing Cen­tre and the Nor­we­gian Refugee Coun­cil said yes­ter­day that the rise was largely due to the on­go­ing civil war in Syria.

Un­like refugees, in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple re­main within their state bor­ders and there­fore re­main un­der the pro­tec­tion and rule of their own government, even if that government is the rea­son for their dis­place­ment. They of­ten move to ar­eas where it is dif­fi­cult to de­liver hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance and, as a re­sult, these peo­ple are among the most vul­ner­a­ble in the world, said the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.

Last year, the re­gion ac­counted for 38 per cent of the global to­tal of 11.8 mil­lion in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple, with 2.9 mil­lion new move­ments that year in Syria alone.

The re­port said about 6.7 mil­lion Syr­i­ans are dis­placed within the coun­try as a re­sult of the seven-year con­flict, the largest in­ter­nally dis­placed pop­u­la­tion in the world.

Dr Ali Ka­mal and his fam­ily were dis­placed in Syria last year when rebel forces in the Homs coun­try­side sur­ren­dered to the Syr­ian regime. They moved to a camp on the out­skirts of Idlib in the coun­try’s north-west.

“Most of the dis­placed peo­ple are liv­ing mis­er­able lives,” Dr Ka­mal told The National.

“The hope was at least things would be more calm and ba­sic ser­vices would be bet­ter than when we were un­der siege in our vil­lage.”

But, like most of those dis­placed, Dr Ka­mal and his fam­ily found no so­lace in re­lo­ca­tion. In­stead they were con­fronted with a dire se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion, health prob­lems such as ty­phoid fever and sca­bies and be­ing far from the fa­mil­iar­ity of their home­towns.

“The in­ter­nally dis­placed do not feel any safer or hap­pier than they were in the homes they were forced to leave,” he said.

Many Syr­i­ans have been dis­placed sev­eral times, the mon­i­tor­ing cen­tre’s direc­tor Alexan­dra Bi­lak told The National.

Some fam­i­lies, she said, have been dis­placed as many as 25 times since the start of the war.

The re­cent ma­jor of­fen­sive on Eastern Ghouta near Da­m­as­cus led to tens of thou­sands of the 400,000 res­i­dents bussed north to seem­ingly safer re­bel­held ar­eas. The move fol­lowed a weeks-long as­sault by the Syr­ian regime and its Rus­sian al­lies on the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs.

In neigh­bour­ing Iraq, the fight against ISIS also caused wide­spread dis­place­ment, with the bat­tle to re­take the city of Mo­sul caus­ing more than 730,000 dis­place­ments last year. Iraq now has 2.6 mil­lion in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple.

But even re­turnees are faced

with dangers, aid work­ers said. Dozens of Iraqis re­turn­ing to lib­er­ated ar­eas have been killed by un­ex­ploded ord­nance and IEDs left by ISIS or acts of vig­i­lante reprisal since government forces re­took the city.

On Novem­ber 25 last year, Saleh Ahmed, 37, and his fam­ily were forced to re­turn to their home­town of Be­taya in An­bar.

“They [Iraqi forces] gave him a tent. He went back to our de­stroyed house and tried to pitch it in our yard,” said his fa­ther, Mahdi Ahmed.

An ex­plo­sive went off. Mr Ahmed Jr’s wife was killed in­stantly and his daugh­ter sus­tained full body burns.

He lost an eye and was se­ri­ously in­jured in the other, ac­cord­ing to one of his sons, who wit­nessed the blast.

Imad Mo­hammed, 35, re­turned to Fal­lu­jah in De­cem­ber 2016 af­ter three years of dis­place­ment in the Kur­dish city of Shaqlawa.

“The city was de­stroyed, ev­ery­thing was de­stroyed,” Mr Mo­hammed told The National. “There were no fa­cil­i­ties, no hospi­tals, no houses. I didn’t want to go back be­cause of that.”

Mr Mo­hammed’s fam­ily was twice dis­placed in 2004 af­ter the two bat­tles for Fal­lu­jah. “We are used to be­ing dis­placed,” he said.

Ms Bi­lak said: “Premature re­turn is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous.”

Early re­turn of­ten puts more pres­sure on communities that are al­ready very vul­ner­a­ble, fray­ing an al­ready del­i­cate so­cial fab­ric, she said.

“This re­port shows why we need a new ap­proach to ad­dress the huge costs of in­ter­nal dis­place­ment, not only to in­di­vid­u­als but also to the econ­omy, sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity of af­fected coun­tries,” Ms Bi­lak said.

There is a need for a longer-term ap­proach and the com­ing to­gether of national and in­ter­na­tional ac­tors, she said.

“We need to recog­nise that the states them­selves need to take ac­tion and support them in find­ing their own so­lu­tion. Support them in in­te­grat­ing in­ter­nal dis­place­ment as the core part for their on­go­ing national pri­or­i­ties.

“Re­turn is al­ways treated as the favourite so­lu­tion,” Ms Bi­lak said.

“But in many con­texts it won’t be the op­tion any time soon.”

There were 11.8 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide up­rooted from their homes and dis­placed in­ter­nally last year – com­pared with the 6.9 mil­lion who suf­fered the same fate a year ear­lier.

The re­port found that 76 per cent of those newly dis­placed last year were con­cen­trated in just 10 coun­tries, with Syria, the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of Congo and Iraq alone ac­count­ing for more than half.

“The staggering num­ber of peo­ple forced to flee from their homes due to con­flict and vi­o­lence must serve as an eye-opener to us all,” said NRC chief Jan Ege­land.

Premature re­turn is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous, of­ten putting more pres­sure on communities that are al­ready very vul­ner­a­ble

ALEXAN­DRA BI­LAK

IDMC direc­tor

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