The Yazidis, Islamic State’s genocide and sexual slavery victims, haven’t necessarily found a safe haven in the Netherlands.
In August 2014, the world’s eyes turned to a mountain plateau in northern Iraq known as Sinjar. The headlines captured the Islamic State’s (IS) brutal attack on the Yazidis, one of Iraq’s oldest religious minorities.
Thousands of men and boys were executed and dumped in mass graves. Thousands of women and girls, some as young as nine, were kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. Meanwhile, many more boys were taken from their families and forced into IS training camps.
The United Nations would later determine that the attack on Sinjar, and the ongoing enslavement, constitutes genocide.
Who are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis are mainly of Kurdish ethnicity, and their religion is a mix of Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrism, an anciant Persian religion. A long-persecuted minority, the Yazidis worship a fallen angel, Melek Tawwus, or Peacock Angel. Contrary to Satan’s fall from grace in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Melek Tawwus was forgiven and returned to heaven.
Due to the importance of the Peacock Angel in the Yazidi’s faith, they received an unjust reputation as devil worshipers. In the times of religious extremism led by IS, professing such faith became a death warrant.
Despite the end of IS’ so-called caliphate in Iraq, the Yazidi plight continues. They are scattered, but the collective trauma that bounds them together is unfathomable. In total, almost 10,000 people were murdered, and about 6,000 women and children were abducted and sold. Around 3,000 of those are still missing.
"I cannot even imagine that I once was a happy man with a family."
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 15, 2017
Part of the women who were rescued shared shocking accounts of being sold and resold into sexual slavery, constant beatings and rapes, and other extreme forms of abuse suffered at the hands of IS fighters and their wives, many of whom had fled Europe to join the group.
Nobel Peace Prize
One of these women is Nadia Murad. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, which she shared with Denis Mukwege, a gynaecologist from the Democratic Republic of Congo who also fights against sexual violence in war. Nadia was captured alongside her sisters and lost six brothers and her mother when IS attacked Sinjar.
She decided to tell her story, constantly reliving the horrors of what she was put through, in order to seek justice and bring awareness to the fate shared by so many Yazidi women. She called her autobiography The Last Girl, because her fight is to be the last girl in the world with such a story.
Lingering in and around camps
The majority of the internally displaced Yazidis live in the Kurdish region of Iraq, in or outside refugee camps. The standards of accommodation vary from precarious tents without cement bases and abandoned buildings, to more comfortable rented apartments. Economic destitution and poor infrastructure are the norm.
The refugees had walked up to 60km in searing temperatures through the Sinjar mountains and many had suffered severe dehydration.
There are currently around 400,000 Yazidis living in Iraqi Kurdistan. This means that humanitarian help and local services are stretched over the limit, leaving people in dire circumstances with no means to cope with such traumatic experiences. Doctors without borders has blown the whistle on a severe mental health crisis among the Yazidi, which includes high numbers of suicides and suicide attempts.
The Yazidi boys who were abducted and forced to join IS’ as child soldiers underwent an extreme brainwashing program. IS laced the boys’ food with amphetamines as a way to reduce fear, and trained a part of them as suicide bombers. Many saw their father being murdered before being taken. Numerous were sent to the bloodiest frontlines.
"As we are talking here, 3,000 women and girls of Yazidi villages are still in the hands of ISIS. They are sold, they are raped."
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) December 13, 2018
Many were bought back by their families from IS for large sums of money, but as they return a deep identity crisis unfolds. A vast number of them are still indoctrinated and renounce their families and their faith, oftentimes violently. Suicide is rampant in what has been described as “a mental-health crisis unlike any in the world”. Some very young Yazidi girls who were abducted and sold into IS’s families to be raised as Muslims are now back with what remains of their families and face a similar crisis.
The forgotten people
Dutch writer and freelance journalist, Brenda Stoter Boscolo, has written a book in which she details the Yazidi genocide through personal stories. The book’s title, The Forgotten People, is grim and seems accurate. Brenda has been to the region many times and has conducted extensive interviews with the Yazidi.
In an interview with DutchReview she expressed the Yazidi’s disbelief in the slow response of the international community. “They are very proud of Nadia’s Nobel, but they feel it is clearly not enough.”
1) I’m gonna ask for help regarding family reunification for a Yazidi boy again. Maybe this time the power of twitter will work.
It’s about the boy on the cover of my book. He was 11 years old when IS kidnapped him and his whole family in 2014. #yezidigenocide pic.twitter.com/btt2McaCDO
— Brenda Stoter Boscolo (@BrendaStoter) August 12, 2019
According to Boscolo, the debate around the repatriation of European IS women living in camps in the Middle East is a sore point in the Yazidi community. “We have also been living in precarious camps for years, why don’t they pick us up?” she often hears. Through her writing and reporting, Boscolo is on an active campaign to remind the Dutch public to include the Yazidi plight when discussing what should be done with Dutch IS fighters and the women who chose to join them. “It is an often-neglected topic,” Boscolo points out.
The quest for justice
When asked what is the best way forward, Boscolo becomes silent for a few seconds on the phone. “There is no easy, clear solution,” she says. “The world needs to acknowledge the genocide and punish the perpetrators. That’s the only way to bring peace to the Yazidis. In order to move on from the trauma, there must be justice.”
This is a sentiment shared by other people fighting for Yazidi rights in the Netherlands. Pari Ibrahim was studying law in the Netherlands when news of the genocide broke; a Yazidi herself with 40 members of her family missing, she soon founded the Free Yazidi foundation. Nowadays she travels the world raising awareness and seeking justice for the Yazidi. Her foundation has also established women and children centers in refugee camps, offering much-needed services for the displaced population.
— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) October 21, 2017
The number of accepted asylum requests from the Yazidi community in Europe has fallen sharply since the height of the crisis. The Dublin accord, which requires asylum seekers to stay in the first country where they are fingerprinted, has also meant that people who know each other and could act as a support network, may end up faraway once in Europe.
Asylum in the Netherlands
In the first semester of 2019, the Dutch immigration and naturalization service, the IND, announced it would send Yazidi asylum seekers back to camps Iraq. The argument the IND offered was that there was enough food and shelter in the camps. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) immediately condemned the decision. The UN body released a statement stating that it was unreasonable to assume that resettling in Iraq was a viable alternative when there are clear issues regarding their safety, protection of basic rights and economic destitution.
After wide condemnation, including from many political parties, the Dutch State Secretary for Security and Justice, Ankie Broekers-Knol, said that the government was backtracking its decision. The Secretary recognized the extremely challenging situation the Yazidis face in Iraq, and said that from now on they would be seen in the Netherlands as a vulnerable minority group. This new classification, consistent with the recognition of the Yazidi genocide, means that residency permits would be a little easier to get. Even though this policy reversal is good news, it is far from fast-tracking resettlement programs in place in other countries, such as Germany and Canada.
What is your opinion? Should the Dutch government take similar steps and open its borders to the resettlement of larger numbers of Yazidi survivors? Let us know your opinion in the comments below.
Feature Image: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee/Flickr