Refugees in their own country: Iraq's ticking time bomb

Refugees in their own country: Iraq's ticking time bomb
5 min read
26 Mar, 2015
Comment: Those displaced internally are all too often ignored by the international media, even though their suffering is often no less than those forced abroad.
A tide of human misery flows out of Iraq and Syria [Getty]
Beyond extensive media coverage of the Islamic State group's crimes and the US-led alliance bombing of Iraqi sites claimed to be under IS control, lurks a massive ticking time bomb, named internally displaced persons.

According to the latest Iraq report from the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 57,000 children reside in camps.

"Of the 2.47 million IDPs across Iraq, an estimated 720,000 are school-age children between the ages of six to 17 years, and an estimated 123,000 children between the ages of four to five years."

Faceless figures

You can easily get lost in figures, even when they are produced by a reliable source or a UN body. Most of the reports on IDPs cover the period starting from January 2014, which immediately raises an important question - what about the huge number of the IDPs forced from their homes in the 11 years between the 2003 invasion and the violent liquidation of mass protests in the four central provinces at the end of 2013?

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) reported that in 2010 there were 2.8 million people displaced within Iraq?

Iraq's IDP situation ranks second only to Syria in scale and seriousness.

One in four of Iraq's 33 million population have become either IDPs or refugees.

Some of them have suffered forced displacement twice if not three times.

Mapping Iraq's IDP situation, which ranks only after Syria in the scale of humanitarian emergencies on many levels - access to shelter, food, security, jobs, and children's education - lead us to examine the effects of such calamity on social cohesion and development, with children's education as a starting point.

IDPs are supposed to move to safe places and be with people they feel secure with and can share basic resources with, which means that IDPs staying with relatives or occupying unfinished or public buildings in urban areas have become a major problem, due to overcrowding and the breakdown of all civil services.

How can Baghdad, Kerbala and Babylon cope with the near doubling of their populations while their own infrastructure - from construction to sewage to water to electricity to any industry or agriculture - is crumbling physically?

Adding to that is the stigma of terrorism associated with certain restive provinces, we are witnessing the incredible scenes of families fleeing war zones being denied "entry" into other provinces, including Baghdad itself.

What can we expect the outcome of these compounded brutalities on defenceless people to be?

The magnitude of the man-made disaster is staggering.

There are 5.2 million Iraqis in need of assistance amid rising instability across the country, according to Unicef and OCHA. They are also warning that the coming war on Mosul will result in increasing numbers of IDPs seeking refuge in the Kurdistan region, on top of previous waves, including the arrival of 225,000 refugees from Syria.

Meanwhile, neither the Iraqi government nor international organisations are doing enough to help.

When escaping war zones to safety, shelter, food, water, and sanitation taking obvious priority. Schooling is not the main concern.

And that has been the case for the past 12 years across the country, to various degrees, but especially for IDPs.

At least a quarter of Iraq's children of school age do not attend school or have nominal schooling. It is accepted that a loss of a year's schooling decreases a child's intelligence by about three percent compared with the average.

We must realise that by now millions of Iraqi children without ten years of schooling have been condemned to what is called "special educational needs", in addition to the psychological and physical traumas they and their family members suffer from.

While the absence of schooling is visible among IDPs, the decline in education in the rest of the country is less visible.

The general decline is due to deterioration of school buildings, the increase in nominal schools where three or four schools use the same building, the ubiquity of nominal teachers who are collecting pay without showing up, the pilfering of local education budgets, corruption spanning all levels from building contracts to selling examination papers, and poverty, which is forcing children to leave school and work to help their families.

Staggering scale

Professor Philip Marfleet has published a study named Displacement and denial: IDPs in today's Iraq.

"Such is the scale and pace of impoverishment in Iraq's cities that the country has fallen far behind countries notorious for urban deprivation, such as India and Bangladesh, where there have been sustained efforts made to improve city life," he writes.

"Iraq's cities are in decline, with millions of people - especially internal migrants - pushed to the margin of society. Internal displacement has given rise to all manner of humanitarian problems."

The return of the displaced to their homes in safety and dignity is a critical step to avoid further destruction of the country and its people.

Acute poverty and a lack of education in an oil-rich country with a government consumed by corruption and sectarianism, while committing crimes with impunity and supported by international allies, are termites eating the very fabric of society - while providing the best "incubator" for desperate young people to seek hope in death.

The return of those displaced to their homes in safety and dignity is a critical and urgent step to avoid further destruction of the country and its people.

The Iraqi government has to be held responsible for its systematic policy of displacement, and the US-led alliance must stop bombing Iraqi cities as the only option whenever they see fit for regime change or "fighting terrorism".

These are not impossible aspirations, provided that there is the will to treat people equally and to put an end to marginalisation, injustice and the climate of fear.

Haifa Zangana is an Iraqi author, artist and political activist.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.