Having been targeted by ISIL during its military campaign in 2014, the Yazidis have gained significant international attention over recent years. However, few knew much about the importance of Yazidi communities to the overall stability in Iraq before their genocide.
Who Are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking minority located primarily in northern Iraq, where about 400,000 lived as of 2014. They have traditionally kept to themselves but experienced ethnic and religious persecution from both Saddam Hussein’s regime over the years as well as ISIL most recently. Such oppression crippled Yazidi communities as their members dealt with the economic fallout and social setbacks resulting from trauma. The novel coronavirus poses a new threat, and the consequences for peace and security in Iraq will be manifold — especially if the Yazidis are excluded from Iraq’s COVID-19 economic recovery strategy.
The COVID-19 Crisis
The spread of COVID-19 has hurt Iraq and its people on a grand scale, as it has in the rest of the world. Yet, despite a low number of cases in northern Iraq, Yazidi communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus due to safety measures taken by the Iraqi government. In Sinjar, where many Yazidis in Iraq live, most of the working population must travel for jobs located outside of the city or are farmers who rely on visiting other cities to sell their crops. However, this way of life is no longer possible under the imposed movement restrictions. Yazidis cannot leave Sinjar for employment, and farmers cannot travel to other cities. Therefore, many Yazidi communities have essentially lost all means of income.
The emergency measures have also adversely impacted the Yazidis on the healthcare front, as access to healthcare has been reduced. Those requiring medical attention can only receive it four hours away in Mosul, taking an ambulance so that they can cross various checkpoints throughout the province. Along with the long trip, some Yazidis do not seek treatment in Mosul because of the language barrier. These factors have further ostracized the Yazidis economically and socially, thus risking an increase in regional poverty.
The Resurgence of Poverty and of ISIL
Poverty’s resurgence in Yazidi communities because of the novel coronavirus has myriad implications for peace and security within the Middle East. In addition to trauma following the end of ISIL’s occupation of Yazidi land, the pandemic has created a mental health crisis within Yazidi communities. Those who previously received counseling at mental health facilities are no longer able to obtain that help due to COVID-19. Some experts are even predicting that 25% of Yazidis will require mental health care after the pandemic subsides.
Others have raised concerns surrounding the return of ISIL during this period of instability. Iraq’s government has acted on this issue militarily and can continue to fight ISIL’s revival by providing economic aid and building necessary healthcare infrastructure in Yazidi communities.
Humanitarian Solutions and NGOs
Ultimately, northern Iraq’s stability will not be achieved through military success alone. The long-term solution will be humanitarian. Following the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as developing better infrastructure, will lead to extraordinary progress on other pressing problems in Iraq, like reducing poverty and improving health.
Giving non-governmental organizations, like Yazda, a bigger role in community building is another way to strengthen Yazidi societies. Yazda focuses on helping Yazidis in various ways. It has already helped thousands obtain mobile medical services in addition to providing hundreds of mental health and socioeconomic assistance and supporting hundreds more in their pursuit of criminal justice.
For now, Baghdad is focused on reopening its urban and economic centers. However, including Yazidi communities in the reopening process during and after COVID-19, as well as supporting them to become more resilient in tumultuous conditions, will be crucial in preventing future conflicts and eliminating poverty in Iraq.
– Alex Berman