Blog post by Sarah Edgcumbe, a PhD student with the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews.
Landmines and Explosive Ordinance Contamination in Contexts of Displacement
By the end of 2019, 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced either within their own country, as internally displaced persons (IDPs), or having crossed an international border as refugees and asylum seekers. Many of the countries in which refugees and IDPs reside (along with those which are often used as transit countries), contain landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and explosive remnants of war (ERW). These devices often simultaneously act as drivers of displacement, deterrence against returning home, or otherwise pose a significant risk to displaced people during transit.
Of the ten countries which host the most refugees, Turkey’s borders with Syria, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran are contaminated by landmines and ERW, while Colombia and Sudan also contain a significant amount of contamination. Lebanon, Pakistan, and Iran each contain an unknown amount of landmine contamination, though the combined amount for these three states is likely to be extensive.
Data collected by the Landmine Monitor demonstrates that landmine contamination of the countries containing the most IDPs is massive. Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq each contain over 100km2 of contaminated land, and the same is likely to be true of Syria and Ethiopia. Somalia contains significant contamination and Nigeria, though cleared of all known contaminated areas, is suffering contamination of mines laid by Boko Haram.
The above countries have been selected as examples of contamination due to their high numbers of refugees and IDPs, but they are by no means unique. Many states experiencing displacement due to conflict and violence are also contaminated with landmines and ERW –either as the result of current or recent conflict, ‘legacy’ contamination resulting from historical conflicts, or a mixture of both.
Additionally, in recent years there has been a concerning increase in the use of victim-operated improvised explosive devices (VOIEDs) in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia, where armed militias are engaging in insurgency tactics which do not differentiate between civilians and military. The Landmine Monitor reports that these VOIEDs have usually been laid as improvised landmines in the Sahel and Tunisia, but in Syria, Iraq and Libya, they have also been used to booby-trap houses, schools, hospitals, and other service structures.
Landmines and VOIEDs as Drivers of Displacement
The correlation between increased violent conflict, corresponding landmine / VOIED and ERW contamination, and increased displacement is evidenced by the high rate of contamination in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. These states have experienced long-running conflicts which contributed to a rise in displacement in the Middle East and North Africa during 2019. There are also globally documented cases of landmine contamination resulting in the permanent abandonment of entire villages.
For many IDPs, particularly in situations of protracted displacement, relocating to urban areas is considered a more sustainable option than living in camps. In urban areas there is often access to healthcare and education, there are better employment opportunities, and pre-existing social support networks likely exist, contributing to a greater sense of independence and informal integration among the host community. However, in countries where conflict is most intense in urban areas, this pattern of displacement, migration, and subsequent informal resettlement can put IDPs in increased danger.
In countries such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria, where armed opposition groups have engaged in ground fighting in order to seize and control urban territory, they have often planted VOIEDs and landmines as they have withdrawn. While these explosive devices have severe consequences for established residents, IDPs are particularly at risk in such situations as they are unfamiliar with potentially contaminated areas and specific hazards.
Landmines as Containment
Whilst landmines are often a driver of displacement, in some instances they have acted (or been deliberately used) as a de facto policy of containment. For example, during the Syrian regime siege on the town of Madaya in 2015, human rights organizations and media outlets reported that regime-affiliated forces had laid landmines around the town in order to prevent people from escaping aerial bombardment and starvation. Similarly, residents of violence-affected villages in Myanmar have been either unable to escape violence, or scared to attempt escape, due to landmines having been laid around their homes.
For the Saharawi people who continue to live in a situation of protracted displacement in Algeria, landmines laid by Morocco in occupied Western Sahara continue to complicate their return. For those Saharawi who remain, their freedom of movement has been severely curtailed by the landmines which were laid around the separation berm built by Morocco in the 1980s. In many circumstances members of families have been divided from each other due to their residency on opposite sides of the berm. The areas surrounding the berm are thought to contain some of the densest mine contamination in the world.
Displaced People in Transit
Displaced people are at heightened risk of encountering landmines and ERW in states and territories they must transit through, as well as their countries of origin. This increased risk is predominantly the result of their unfamiliarity with areas they are passing through, but in certain cases, transit routes have been deliberately targeted by VOIEDs. UNHCR reports that since the beginning of 2020, there has been a growing number of fatal incidents involving forcibly displaced populations and VOIEDs / landmines in the Sahel as well as Chad and Nigeria in the Chad Basin.
In Syria, it is reported that regime-affiliated forces deliberately mined the main transit routes used by IDPs between Deir Ezzour, northern Syria, and Al Hasaka as they sought to escape areas of intense military bombardment in Deir Ezzour. These mines resulted in fatalities and injuries for a number of civilians, including children.
When Hungary closed its borders with Serbia to refugees and migrants in 2015, those making their way through the Balkans were forced to re-route through mine-contaminated land in Croatia. The Croatian government immediately sent demining teams to the affected areas, while volunteer refugee solidarity groups used social media to publish information on where the minefields were located and how to identify and avoid them.
Meanwhile refugees and migrants who make their way to Libya through Egypt often continue to be led through minefields in Egypt’s Western Desert.
During 2019 there were 5.6 million returnees according to UNHCR. Countless more were prevented from returning home due to the presence of landmines, VOIEDs and ERW in their homes and communities. In 2017, more than 6,000 villagers in Myanmar who were displaced by conflict and violence stated that they felt permanent return was impossible due to ongoing fighting and presence of landmines among other obstacles. In Iraq alone, 3,367km2 was rendered inaccessible for returnees in 2019 due to the presence of explosive ordinance.
Iraq and Syria both suffer a high rate of contamination in residential buildings, hospitals, schools, and other areas of service provision as a result of ISIS laying landmines and VOIEDs as they retreated from areas formerly under their control. ISIS-manufactured VOIEDs were often made from loaves of bread, teapots, fridges, vacuum cleaners, computers, dolls, light switches and water taps among other things. These devices often operate through a tiny “crush-wire” detonation mechanism, making them incredibly difficult to spot. This type of deliberately hidden or disguised contamination puts returnees in grave danger.
OCHA estimates that the presence of ERW and other explosive ordinance poses significant risk to approximately 2.1 million people in Iraq, particularly in Anbar, Baghdad, Kirkuk, Ninewa and Salah-al-Din provinces. Returnees in the Anbar province of Iraq that VOIEDs and other items of explosive ordinance sometimes detonated in houses, which contributed to feelings of insecurity among residents. Despite the significant risk posed by VOIEDs and landmines to returnees in Iraq, the government continues to pursue policies which emphasise return as the most desirable solution to displacement.
There is grave concern in Syria that returnees are exposed to particularly high risks. 11.5 million people now live in the 2,562 communities that have reported explosive ordinance contamination over the past two years. The risk of harm is amplified in densely populated urban areas due to the close proximity of people in residential buildings. In addition to residential and public buildings in Syria, ISIS laid landmines in fields, rendering agricultural land extremely dangerous for returnees, who must continue to access these fields in order to survive.
Explosive ordinance contamination is so severe in some parts of Libya that on 7 June 2020 the Joint Operations Room established by the Presidential Council issued an announcement prohibiting return of IDPs to their homes in Tripoli until all IEDs and ERW have been cleared. This announcement followed a spate of deaths and severe injuries to civilians who had returned to their homes after the withdrawal of the Libyan Arab Armed Forces and subsequently come into contact with victim-operated landmines and IEDs as well as ERW. Visible presence of unexploded ordinance (UXO) was reported in nine municipalities of Libya, with the districts of Ain Zara and Derna in Tripoli being particularly badly affected.
Returnees in several other countries also continue to be severely affected by the presence of landmines, VOIEDs and ERW in and around their homes and communities. For example, in Yemen, human rights organization Mwatana reported that landmines were planted in residential areas, houses, public roads, main streets, farms and other places frequented by civilians, rendering communities potentially lethal for returnees.
Landmines and Explosive Ordinance as an Obstacle to Achieving Durable Solutions
The presence of landmines, VOIEDs and ERW affects returnees in multiple ways. In conjunction with the physical threat they pose, they also dramatically inhibit the ability of governments and agencies to deliver humanitarian aid, implement services, and repair damaged infrastructure. The combination of the above can result in returnees and IDPs living in desperate and precarious circumstances.
Where agricultural land is contaminated by landmines, communities struggle to produce enough food to survive and contribute to the local economy. The direct consequence of this communal inability to sufficiently access land and other required resources is increased dependency on aid, which in the worst circumstances, cannot be effectively delivered due to explosive ordinance contamination. Public infrastructure and buildings such as hospitals, schools, and places of worship may also be contaminated, resulting in poor communal health, fragmented communities, escalating poverty, and increased social marginalization. Furthermore, as IDP populations recognise the risks associated with returning home to contaminated communities, the likelihood of protracted displacement increases. This in turn heightens the necessity of exploring alternatives to return as the singular, favoured durable solution of choice on the part of governments and donors. This is problematic in the contemporary political climate, wherein alternatives to return usually receive very little political support.
The number of displaced persons globally has increased significantly over recent years. As a result, both refugees and IDPs are at increased risk of encountering landmines, VOIEDs, and other items of explosive ordinance, as they transit through or settle in unfamiliar areas, or return to homes and communities that have been contaminated during their absence.
The presence of landmines and VOIEDs is a driving factor of displacement, but it is also an obstacle to both return and development. The consequences of contamination are multifaceted, but in broad terms, landmines, ERW, and the presence of other explosive ordinance directly contributes to situations of protracted displacement, increased dependency on aid, and the inability to achieve durable solutions to displacement.
Governments who have not yet ratified or acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty should be strongly encouraged to do so at both national and international levels as a matter of urgency, with a view to ceasing production and use of mines, and subsequent stockpile destruction taking place as swiftly as possible. Additionally, international bodies and donors should ensure provision of adequate funding for humanitarian mine action, with the objective of achieving global mine-free status by 2025. This date is in accordance with the international commitment made at the Maputo Mine Ban Treaty Review Conference held in 2014.
In the meantime, organizations should formulate sustainable refugee and displacement response strategies that are participatory and sensitive to context, particularly in landmine and ERW-affected areas. A persistent emphasis on return is short-sighted and extremely harmful to both affected individuals and communities. The presence of landmines, IEDs, and other explosive devices will not only continue to cause physical and psychological harm, but will prevent reconstruction and development of communities, thereby increasing vulnerability of residents and obstructing their chances of re-establishing self-sufficiency.
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