Yazidis relive the horror as deportation looms

Women burn incense in a procession during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of Islamic State (IS) in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district
As many as 10,000 Yazidis are currently at risk of being deported to Iraq. Most arrived in Germany after 2017 when it was ruled that Yazidis no longer faced group persecution in Iraq following the territorial defeat of IS. As a result they do not hold asylum status. Pictured: mass funeral for Yazidi IS victims near Sinjar, northern Iraq (image: ZAID AL-OBEIDI/AFP via Getty Images)

Recently Germany's "culture of welcome" has given way to a much tougher asylum and immigration policy. Now Yazidi survivors of IS genocide face an uncertain, potentially re-traumatising future

By Hannah Wallace

One year ago, after the German government recognised Islamic State's 2014 assault on Iraqi and Syrian Yazidis as genocide, the 150,000 Yazidis who had since settled in Germany began to feel they had finally found a home.

But that all changed for Fehima Evdi Derwis, a 32-year-old mother of three in Berlin, when she and her family received deportation orders at the end of last year. "Neighbours called us infidels and Satan worshippers," she told Qantara.de, expressing fears of being forcibly returned to Iraq.

Such persecution was a daily reminder of the terror Yazidis experienced almost a decade ago. An ancient Middle Eastern people who follow a faith that blends elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, the Yazidis were viewed as pagan devil worshippers by Islamic State. 

When the terror group seized vast swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, they massacred Yazidis and forced thousands of Yazidi women and girls into sex slavery.

Half a million Yazidis fled their historic homeland, with hundreds of thousands ending up in Europe. Fehima and her husband lacked the resources to make the arduous journey. Living in a displaced persons camp in Iraq, they were unable to find work and suffered through four difficult years.

Finally, in 2018, they made their way to Germany, where by that time the warm generosity and openness that had inspired the government to welcome a million asylum-seekers had largely waned.

The situation has since worsened following a stark change in the political landscape. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise with support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) currently hovering around 20 percent.

In November, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz vowed to ramp up deportations of unsuccessful asylum-seekers. Shortly after, a German media report revealed that Baghdad and Berlin had signed a secret deportation agreement that included the return to Iraq of "nationals who do not or no longer fulfil the required conditions for entry, presence or residence in either territory".

Drawing by a Yazidi during an art therapy session at the Caritas facility in Bad Saarow, Germany
"I would rather die in Germany than live in Iraq": Yazidis in Germany face the constant threat of being forced back into the fire. "In Iraq, there is no future for Yazidis and no future for our children," Fehima says, cradling her one-year-old child. Pictured: drawing by a Yazidi during an art therapy session at a Caritas facility in Germany (image: Benjamin Bathke/InfoMigrants)

Deportation tantamount to re-traumatisation

Up to 10,000 Yazidis are now at risk of deportation to Iraq, according to migration expert Karim Alwasiti of the Refugee Council in Lower Saxony. Most facing possible deportation arrived after 2017 when Germany ruled that Yazidis no longer faced group persecution in Iraq following the territorial defeat of IS. They have not been given asylum in Germany, but the much weaker "tolerated" status.

"They survived genocide and now their livelihoods are once again at stake," says Duzen Tekkal, founder of HAWAR, a German NGO that supports Iraqi refugees. "For many, deportation to Iraq is tantamount to re-traumatisation."

Some 200,000 Yazidis are still displaced, with most living in under-funded camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Electricity and water are scarce, as are medical care and mental health support. 

"Women in the camps face an increased risk of gender-based violence, including sexual assault, domestic violence and forced marriage," says Aya Jalal, project coordinator at Jinda, a Dohuk-based NGO that helps women and girls. "The fear of such incidents can have profound psychological effects on a population that has already experienced so much."

Camp inhabitants mostly come from the devastated Sinjar region and are unable or unwilling to return home. Mass graves, destroyed homes and mines littered across the landscape are reminders of the destruction IS left behind. Since Islamic State was pushed out in 2015, armed groups including the Kurdistan Worker's Party – the target of frequent Turkish airstrikes – and Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi have moved in.

A 2020 agreement signed by Baghdad and Erbil called for the clearing out of armed groups and the creation of a 2500-strong security force in Iraq's Sinjar has yet to be implemented. "We have many families who returned to Sinjar, but are now back living in the camps as the areas remain unsafe and unstable," says Aya Jalal.

Lottery-style asylum system

Germany's lottery-style asylum system allows each state to make its own decisions on deportation. North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia have banned the deportation of Yazidi women and children until April 2024, though Yazidi men can still be sent back. 

Berlin, the state in which Fehima and her family are based, also has a temporary ban in place which ends this month. There is, as yet, no word on what will happen next. 

Other states have taken a more hardline stance. In Bavaria, which is run by a coalition of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and the centre-right Free Voters of Bavaria (FW), a Yazidi family of four, including two young children, was recently forced to return to Iraq. Two older daughters training to become nursing assistants were allowed to remain in Germany for now. They too have tolerated status and are afraid of being returned to Iraq.

Deportation flights to Iraq have steadily increased since last fall. Without a full national ban, Yazidis in Germany face the constant threat of being forced back into the fire. "In Iraq, there is no future for Yazidis and no future for our children," Fehima says, cradling her one-year-old child. "I would rather die in Germany than live in Iraq."

Hannah Wallace

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