Pandemic may revive Islamic State and hurt Iraq’s minorities, say NGOs

Cross blessing in Bakhdida May 2 2017 Credit SOS Chretiens Orient CNA Syrian Catholic Archbishop Youhanna Boutros Moshe of Mosul blesses a newly-erected cross in Bakhdida, Iraq, May 2, 2017. Photo courtesy SOS Chrétiens d'Orient.

For Iraqi Christian and Yazidi communities still recovering from the destruction wreaked by the Islamic State, the coronavirus poses significant risks, NGOs have said in a joint statement. 

"The public health system in Sinjar and the wider Nineveh Governorate was decimated by ISIS during its brutal occupation and genocidal campaign in Iraq, beginning in 2014," the letter stated.

"An impending humanitarian and security disaster looms large in Iraq. … There is a significant attendant threat to global security if ISIS uses this opportunity to regroup and return, but it does not have to be this way. Iraqi authorities and the United Nations must act now," it continued.

Twenty-five NGOs working in northern Iraq issued a joint statement April 16 calling on the World Health Organization to undertake an assessment mission in the area, where testing has been limited, and urging Iraqi authorities to prevent the Islamic State from regrouping.

Signed by the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, Free Yezidi Foundation, Genocide Alert, and the Religious Freedom Institute, the statement described how the pandemic is exacerbating existing security, humanitarian, and health risks among displaced and rebuilding Iraqi minority communities. It highlighted, in particular, the global risk of a potential resurgence of the Islamic State.

Security threat

"COVID-19 and the precipitous drop in oil prices have caused the Iraqi economy to collapse, leaving a dangerous security vacuum for ISIS to exploit. Indeed, the resultant political turmoil and social strife recall the very conditions that earlier incarnations of ISIS and its supporters capitalized on during its initial surge almost a decade ago," it stated.

"According to International Crisis Group, ISIS in its weekly newsletter Al-Naba called on its fighters to attack and weaken its enemies while they are distracted by the pandemic," it added.

U.S. military officials have expressed concern that the Islamic State could use adverse conditions to its advantage in it recruitment efforts.

"COVID-19 has also hastened the departure of some coalition forces from Iraq, weakening counter-terrorism operations, while some ISIS detainees have recently escaped prison in Syria," the letter stated.

On March 30, Islamic State fighters imprisoned in northwestern Syria revolted. The rioting prisoners took over one wing of the prison before Kurdish forces intervened.

"There is an urgent need for reform in the civilian security sector, in order to integrate regional militias into a unified Federal Police that upholds the rule of law and protects all citizens, regardless of religion or clan affiliation," the letter said.

Health infrastructure needs

The economic strain has also hindered Iraqi minorities' efforts to rebuild their communities, including medical infrastructure needs.

"Many Yazidis (Ezidis/Yezidis) want to return to Sinjar, but security, reconstruction and basic services are still lacking to allow a dignified return. There are currently only two hospitals and just one ventilator to assist the current population of around 160,000 people in the region," the NGOs' statement explained.

Iraq's healthcare system, which has suffered for decades from the effects of sanctions and war, currently faces a critical shortage of doctors and medicine, according to a Reuters investigation. Hospitals in Iraq are already overcrowded and doctors overworked, while the healthcare situation is slightly better in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which has its own health ministry.

There have been at least 1,600 cases of COVID-19 documented in Iraq, which is under pressure to reopen its border with Iran, which has had more than 85,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.

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Humanitarian workers have also had trouble reaching those in need due to movement restrictions, and have raised concerns about the risk of an outbreak in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.

Social distancing is very difficult in these high-density IDP camps in Iraq, where 1.8 million people remain displaced due to insecurity and reconstruction needs, according to the UN.

The 25 NGOs called for the government of Iraq and the United Nations to provide testing capacity in the IDP camps in Sinjar, Tel Afar and the Nineveh Plains.

"At present, it is impossible to apprehend the extent of the spread of the virus because no testing for the disease is taking place in the camps, while restrictions of movement impede the work of humanitarian actors who provide basic essentials such as food, water and medicine," they stated.

Psychological risk for trauma survivors

Genocide survivors with trauma also face increased personal risk of psychological harm amid isolation imposed by coronavirus measures.

As in much of the world, authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have ordered people to stay home, imposed a curfew, and have closed places of worship, schools, restaurants, and most businesses. 

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"Another alarming corollary of the COVID-19 pandemic in Iraq is the psychological impact on at-risk communities, including Yazidis, Turkmen and Christians, such as Assyrians," it said.

This is a particular concern for the Yazidi communities in which thousands of women were victims of sexual violence by the Islamic State.

"Prior to the outbreak, Médecins Sans Frontières reported on a debilitating mental health crisis among Yazidis in Iraq, including a rising number of suicides," it stated.

Suicides in this community have already been reported since social distancing measures were put into place, the NGOs reported. They called on the World Health Organization to address this "acute mental health crisis."

In their appeal to the WHO and Iraqi government, the NGOs insisted that the stakes were high: 

"COVID-19 is a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen before. Survivors of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes are now waiting for this silent death to pass through the camps and their homes, unable to fight back."

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