Bleak Future for Iraq's Displaced

Masad Ammar,* his wife and children recently fled their home in Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, after they received a threatening letter warning them that if they did not leave within three days, they would be killed. They grabbed what few belongings they could and fled. They now live with other displaced families in a former military facility. They have no electricity, water or sewer system, and insurgents have moved into their former home.

“We do not think the security will improve and we cannot go home. We just want to live in peace and try to blend with the other families living here,” says Masad, as he and his family gather in the tiny room they are occupying in the abandoned building. They need even the most basic items such as mattresses, cooking utensils and clothes.

Iraq has a long-standing history of dis¬placement with almost 1.5 million people displaced throughout the country over the past four decades. Increasing violence has now resulted in one of the worst displacement crises in its history.

On 22 February 2006, the bombing of the Al-Askariya shrine in Samarra in the Iraqi governorate of Salah al Din plunged the country deeper into volatility. Religious and community tensions had already been brewing since the demise of Saddam Hussein. The bombing seemed to be the spark that ignited an ever-increasing spiral of violence and displacement throughout the country.

“When Saddam’s regime collapsed, we were rejoicing and waited for democracy to change our lives, but our dreams have not come true. Instead, we face unending violence. I am making plans to leave the country,” revealed Omer Mahmood, a medical doctor who is currently living in Kirkuk. Some of Omer’s colleagues have been killed or kidnapped, and he has witnessed the displacement of his family and friends.

By end of November, IOM Iraq estimates that more than 250,000 people have been displaced in central and southern Iraq since 22 February, with about 1,000 people being displaced on a daily basis over the past few months.

“The violence is segregating Iraq,” said Haider Anwar, who is managing IOM Iraq’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) monitoring and assessment project. “Due to forced displacement, even neighbourhoods in Baghdad City are either one religious sect or another, and it is too dangerous to live there unless you are part of a certain sect.”

Ali Jaber fled with his family of eight from the violence in his home town in Diyala to the governorate of Wassit, where they moved into a one-room mud home outside its capital, Kut. In Diyala, Ali supported his family as a successful taxi driver, but since their displacement, Ali hasn’t been able to find work. He and his family struggle to pay for food and rent. “It is humiliating to live like this,” says Ali.

Hayder J Ali, a medical doctor who heads a local Iraqi NGO, says that displacement is taking a great toll on the physical and psychological well-being of both children and adults. “Displacement in Iraq is often accompanied by a loss of employment and access to basic services, increasing the feelings of anger, hopelessness and inadequacy. The living conditions of many displaced persons are deplorable, and communicable diseases and acute or chronic mental illness are common.”

The alarming increase in displacement brought to light the need for a thorough monitoring and needs assessments of recently displaced populations. IOM, as the lead organization for IDP monitoring and emergency assistance in Iraq, began to help track that displacement and to identify the IDPs’ most basic needs, their intentions, and why they were displaced. It was and is, a huge, dangerous and extremely difficult undertaking.

Experienced interviewers travel throughout Iraq’s central and southern governorates to identify and interview IDPs. In some regions, the security situation, checkpoints or road closures prevent or hinder their work at times. Often the interviewers cannot reveal they are working for an international humanitarian organization. Any such association makes them a target for insurgents and criminals.

The interviewers sit with the families or local community leaders to obtain the information needed and listen to the IDPs’ needs and concerns on numerous issues. But the research goes deeper. Tribal and community leaders, local NGOs, the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration and local government bodies are also visited in order to gather additional information.

That information gives IOM and others not only an idea of the scale of displacement in each of the 15 central and southern governorates the Organization is monitoring, but is also critical in helping it to prioritize emergency operations and in designing long-term durable solutions to the displacement crisis. What help is needed for those who never plan to return to their former homes?

This is an issue for those who have fled to the south of the country such as Basrah. Here, where the situation is a bit more stable, communities are more homo¬genous and where IDPs have tribal or familial links, the displaced want to stay and integrate with the local community. But for that, permanent housing and employment are key.

Finding durable solutions in Baghdad, for example, which is more violent, unstable and less homogenous, is difficult in a different way. Many IDPs here say they plan to return to their original homes. But the longer they are displaced, the harder it becomes for them to go back, especially as Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities become increasingly separated.

More pressing are the immediate needs of the displaced. And with winter fast looming, some of the most basic requirements will become critical to their survival.

Many IDPs rank shelter and access to work as their priority needs. In many areas, an increase in displacement has resulted in increased competition for housing and a subsequent hike in rent, land prices and shelter materials. The irony is that if the IDPs could find a job – a difficult task already in a country where social and economic disintegration combined with high nationwide employment has had a catastrophic effect on work opportunities for all – their shelter and food needs would, to a certain extent, be met.

For Mohammed Abbas, a new job and increased security for his family were his hope. He, his wife, two sons and daughter were displaced from Baghdad to Kerbala. In Baghdad, he owned a shop and repaired electronics. However, with no job in Kerbala, Mohammed says that his family will soon have to return to the Iraqi capital as they don’t have the money to pay the rent for the coming months. But returning to their home Abu Ghraib, a notoriously dangerous area, is unthinkable. It’s likely they will be forced to move yet again and stay with relatives who live in a somewhat “safer” area in Baghdad.

Mohammed, like many other parents, is worrying about what displacement is doing to his children. They, however, are some of the luckier ones. They have their parents. IOM’s monitoring has found that children, single women, the elderly and the sick are the most vulnerable among the displaced.

Increasing numbers of widows as the death toll in Iraq rises means that they and their children are being left to fend for themselves. With very few work opportunities for women in Iraq, widows are forced to ask their children to beg or work in order to survive.

Poverty, lack of food, shelter, and proper health care also means children are especially affected by malnutrition and not surprisingly, preventable diseases and infections have increased. Growing up in an environment where violence is the norm is also causing long-term psychological trauma and in a conflict-ridden country, psychosocial support is not readily available.

“What is particularly worrying is that traditional coping mechanisms in Iraq are not only being stretched to the limit but are starting to break down,” says Rafiq Tschannen, IOM’s Chief of Mission. “For a long time now, an unbearable weight has been put on families hosting the displaced. They cannot carry on like this for much longer.”

IOM is trying to lessen that suffering where it can. It is providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable IDP families including food, water, and non-food items such as blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, stoves and hygiene kits. More than 30,000 families have been helped in this way since February, among them the families of both Ali and Mohammed.

With very few organizations being able to work in Iraq, such assistance is critical. But the Organization doesn’t have funds to continue doing this beyond another few months.

“We can’t stress enough what a difference it makes for people to get this help at such a moment of crisis. Without it, their future is unthinkable,” says Martin Ocaga, IOM Iraq’s IDP Programme Manager.

Despite all the pain, hardship and suffering, the miracle is that there is still a glimmer of hope and belief in a better future among some Iraqis.

“I feel like there is the potential for democracy and peace in Iraq,” says Omer. The first sign of that happening is when displacement stops.

*All names have been changed for security purposes.