- BAGHDAD -- American officials report that the number of sectarian and other killings in Iraq has declined since the onset of the military “surge.” But, while the number of killings may, indeed, have fallen, does that mean Iraq is really safer?
Insecurity in Iraq is most strikingly illustrated by the number of people fleeing their homes. The United Nations estimates that, since July, the number has risen by 60,000 every month. The best estimate is that around 16% of Iraq’s population, or one in six Iraqis, no longer live in their homes.
Roughly half of those who have fled have also left the country, implying two million refugees. This leaves another two million who have been displaced internally, and who represent an emerging humanitarian tragedy.
There have been international reports and fundraising campaigns to support Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, but the internally displaced have received less attention, despite their greater vulnerability, owing to their proximity to the conflict and the poor standard of basic services in Iraq. They tend to be less visible, and it is more difficult for donors and agencies to assist them.
Internal displacement predates the 2003 Iraq invasion. During former President Saddam Hussein’s rule, large numbers of people were forcibly relocated through either conflict or government policy. Since 2003, displacement has affected all the peoples of Iraq, and the central reason remains the same – the use of violence to expel people from an area with the aim of increasing political and economic power.
Mixed neighborhoods across Iraq have been targeted by one side or another as sectarian violence has risen and local militias wield power. The inability of the government or the multi-national force to curb this intimidation reflects the absence of the rule of law. Other factors causing displacement include operations of the multinational force itself, crime, the lack of basic services, and desperate poverty. The complexity of Iraq’s society and history means that many people have been displaced more than once, or have returned from exile only to become internally displaced.
According to the UN, 69% of those displaced since February 2006 come from Baghdad, which demonstrates the extent of the “sectarianization” of the capital. Thus, one reason for the “success” claimed by supporters of the military surge may well be that sectarian cleansing in Baghdad has been hugely effective and is now nearly complete.
Displaced Iraqis who remain in the country move to areas where their community is strong. Displaced Shi’a tend to move from the center of the country to the south, Sunnis from the south to the center, and Christians to Nineveh province. In mixed cities such as Baghdad and Baquba, those forced to move gravitate towards newly homogenized districts.
Most displaced people rent accommodation, stay with family or friends, or squat, while a smaller number take refuge in camps. There are big refugee camps in Kerbala, Wasit, Diyala, and Nineveh, but most of the displacement is urban rather than camp-based, and thousands of displaced families live in major cities such as Baghdad and Mosul. These people now account for many of the eight million Iraqis who are in absolute poverty and in need of emergency assistance.
Education is minimal, health care is inadequate, and many die without even being accounted for. Whereas between 25% and 40% of Iraqis may require food assistance at any given time, this figure is much higher for displaced people, owing to their poor access to the public distribution system. Only a third of the displaced had access to the system last year, while half reported receiving food rations only occasionally.
It is a new phenomenon in Iraq to see people, particularly women and children, looking in the rubbish every day for something to eat. In such conditions, many young people feel they have little choice but to join violent groups, if only to provide some income and a level of protection.
Female-headed households, in particular, face great difficulties in protecting and supporting their families. There are increasing reports of Iraqi women resorting to prostitution and of trafficking in women and children to neighboring countries. The government recently announced the extension of a program of emergency cash allowances to widows. However, this is insufficient to help most of the three million widows, while corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency hamper efforts further.
Another tragedy of the current conflict has been its impact on minority communities, which make up 10% of the population and are targets for eradication. Violent attacks have caused a huge exodus, jeopardizing the existence of Christians, Yazidis, and Mandeans, who have lived in Iraq for hundreds of years.
Despite the vulnerability of minorities, the religious breakdown of displaced people closely reflects that of the country: 64% Shi’a, 32% Sunni, and 4% Christian. But the ethnic breakdown of displaced people – 93% Arab, 4% Assyrian, and 1% Kurd – illustrates the grave insecurity in central Iraq and the relative stability of Kurdistan.
With the prospects of return continuing to deteriorate, prolonged displacement may well become permanent. Should levels of displacement remain high, as appears likely, the humanitarian crisis may deepen further, especially because strained local resources have led some governorates to begin refusing to admit displaced people. Their predicament, too, must be reflected in any calculation of Iraq’s security conditions.
Shirouk Alabayachi is Head of the Iraqi Studies Center, Baghdad. Robert Lowe is Manager of the Middle East Program at Chatham House.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2007.