October 29, 2015 / 2:07 PM / 4 years ago

Syrian refugees adapt to life in Iraqi U.N. camp controlled by Islamic State

ERBIL, Iraq (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The rules are clear in Al Obaidi in northern Iraq, the only United Nations refugee camp in Iraq operating in territory controlled by Islamic State.

Women have to cover their faces with a niqab and cannot walk around without a male escort. No alcohol or smoking is allowed. The Internet is forbidden although the chance of getting a connection is slim with cell towers in the area bordering Syria destroyed more than a year ago.

Breaching any of these rules can have serious consequences, including execution by the morality police, witnesses say.

Al Obaidi, some 20 miles (32 km) from Al Qaim in Iraq’s western Anbar province, has been under the control of Islamic State for the past 16 months but still receives supplies of U.N.-funded food and medicine that is delivered by local groups.

The Islamic State, which subscribes to a puritanical school of Sunni Islam, started seizing vast swathes of land in eastern Syria in 2013 before moving into western Iraq in its pursuit of a cross-border caliphate.

In July 2014, the militants captured Al Qaim and the area around the town, including the remote camp, which houses more than 900 refugees, mostly from Al Bukamal and Deir ez-Zor, in the eastern part of Syria.

“Life in Al Obaidi camp is still better than outside. At least we have basic services such as water and electricity for eight hours a day,” said a staff member of an Iraqi aid group who, for security reasons, did not want to be identified.

The aid worker was one of several to be interviewed remotely by the Thomson Reuters Foundation about conditions in the camp which opened in June 2013 and is now cut off to outsiders.


Caught off-guard by the Islamic State’s campaign in Iraq, the camp’s inhabitants had no time to flee and, with the Islamic State in control, they now have little chance of escape.

As soon as the militants, also known as ISIS, took over Al Qaim, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR evacuated all its staff from Anbar province, relying on two local aid groups to run the camp. UNHCR officials have not visited the camp since.

“When ISIS first arrived in Al Qaim, we decided to close the camp for two days,” said Ali Kasem, a spokesman for non-governmental organisation (NGO) United Iraqi Medical Society for Relief and Development (UIMS).

UIMS is in charge of the only clinic in Al Obaidi, while the Iraqi Salvation Humanitarian Organization (ISHO), another Iraqi group that was set up to deliver humanitarian services to those in need, is responsible for managing security.

A few days after capturing Al Qaim, Islamic State fighters paid the camp a visit. They made it clear that local aid groups could continue to run the camp as long as the residents observed rigid Islamic Sharia law, witnesses said.

They also demanded the removal of U.N. logos from the camp.

“There was no negotiations, it was more accepting what they offered,” Kasem recalled.

Although the Islamic State said it would guarantee the protection and security for the camp’s inhabitants, during the next visit to Al Obaidi, about a week later, the group executed three men and two women - accusing them of being spies.

In August, another aid worker was killed.

“The reasons (for the execution) are not known,” Bruno Geddo, UNHCR representative in Iraq, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Islamic State still checks the camp at least once a month. Refugees can move around although there is a curfew at night.

“There are many reports about daily violence in Al Qaim. Although the situation in the camp is precarious, people, especially young girls, are safer here than in the villages,” said another aid worker, who fears for his life if his identity is revealed.

Initially humanitarian aid was delivered in small quantities through the United Nations’ local partners and in black bags without agency logos, according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), an independent UK-based thinktank.

But as the war intensified, supply routes became blocked by fighting making it harder for provisions to reach the camp. Checkpoints manned by the Iraqi army and Islamic State fighters complicated the situation further.

The U.N. World Food Programme stopped distribution of food in February this year so UNHCR took over, and, through local partners, it is handing out two loaves of bread per refugee per week and some money.

“We grant around $30 to refugees on a monthly basis though the amount may vary,” UNHCR’s Geddo said.

Medicines arrive in the camp twice a year, forcing aid workers to cope with an acute shortage of supplies.

UIMS, however, has been able to convince Islamic State to allow women to be visited by a male doctor.

“We explained to them that in an emergency we didn’t have any other choice,” Kasem said. “There is just one female doctor coming once a week. Though they didn’t say OK, they turned the head away, so now we let the females go to the doctors.”


While nobody in the humanitarian community denies the existence of the camp, UNICEF and other organisations such as International Rescue Committee that are working in the camp, declined to comment on how they are providing services.

But documents on the UNHCR website that are updated every three months outline which organisations are delivering which services to the camp.

“It’s a very delicate subject to openly speak about negotiations with non-state actors. It’s not just about Iraq. It was the same in Afghanistan, in Somalia. It’s an illustration of conflict,” Eva Svoboda, ODI research fellow, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The silence on the subject is partly due to the tension between international humanitarian law - which assures the provision of aid to civilians in times of conflict - and counter-terrorism regulations.

These regulations typically hold organisations liable if they negotiate with groups that have been designated as terrorist organisations - like Islamic State, Svoboda said.

Throughout history, rebel groups from Somalia to Sudan have seized, siphoned off or accepted aid from international organisations to win support from the local population.

“It is not uncommon at all and when you look at the history of conflicts, all rebels and all belligerents have all, to a certain degree, allowed humanitarian assistance or engaged in some kind of negotiations,” Svoboda said.

Local aid workers fear the Al Obaidi camp may close down by 2016 due to a lack of funding as the refugee crisis in Europe draws attention away from Syria and Iraq.

They also worry donors will find it unpalatable to fund a refugee camp in Islamic State-held territory.

UIMS says it is ready to work for free to care for the hundreds of people in the camp, nearly half of them children.

“We don’t know if they will allow us to do so. This is a UNHCR camp, not ours. And the reality is that these people do not have anywhere else to go,” Kasem said.

Editing by Katie Nguyen and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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