Iraq's displacement crisis continues to worsen, UNHCR says

News and Press Release
Originally published
BAGHDAD, 10 June 2007 (IRIN) - When sectarian violence forced Muhie Nasser Jawad's family to leave their home in Baghdad in March 2006, they thought it would only be for a few days. But more than a year later, their hopes of returning are fading as violence continues to plague the streets of the capital and the displacement camp they live in continues to grow.

"We only took a few clothes and some important documents and left everything in its place [in the house] as we thought it was just a temporary situation and that we would go back after a few days," said Jawad, a 48-year-old Shia maths teacher who was threatened by Sunni extremists to leave his house in the mixed sect Gazaliyah district of Baghdad or have his head chopped off.

"Now, we see no light at the end of the tunnel," Jawad, a father of three boys, told IRIN in a phone interview from Shula government camp in northern Baghdad.

The turning point in relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq can be traced back directly to 22 February, 2006, when a revered Shia shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, was bombed by what many believe was a Sunni extremist group.

The attack spawned days of reprisals that damaged or destroyed dozens of mosques, killed hundreds and made thousands of families homeless, compounding the displacement problem created after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Over two million displaced

In its latest statement, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) warned that the situation in the war-torn country continues to worsen with over two million Iraqis now believed to be displaced within the country and another 2.2 million having fled to neighbouring states.

The statement, issued on 5 June, said that an estimated 820,000 people, including 15,000 Palestinians, had been displaced since the bombing of the Samara shrine.

Limited access to social services and a general lack of resources has led to a growing number of impoverished shanty towns.

"Individual governorates inside Iraq are becoming overwhelmed by the needs of the displaced. At least 10 out of the 18 governorates have closed their borders or are restricting access to new arrivals," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said in the statement.

"UNHCR is receiving disturbing reports of regional authorities refusing to register new arrivals, including single women, and denying access to government services. Many displaced have been evicted from public buildings," Pagonis added.

Political disunity

An official in the Iraqi Cabinet blamed a lack of unity among politicians and lawmakers for the growing displacement problem.

"There is real fighting between Sunni and Shia politicians for power inside the government and that is reflected on the street. This has become part of the political game - the more pieces of land and the greater number of neighbourhoods you control, the more power you have on the political level," the official said on condition of anonymity.

"And this game is going beyond the control of anyone in the government and gets worse and worse," he added.

For displaced people such as Jawad and his family, who live day by day in uncertainty, Iraq's politicians have failed them miserably. "It's as if we are wood for their fire," Jawad said." What have we done to deserve that? I'm dying every day when I see my family struggling to get a container of drinking water or sleeping in this makeshift camp in hot summer temperatures."