Middle East

Iraq's displaced lead desperate lives in squatter camps

Displaced Iraqis in Imam Ali settlement
Image caption More than 450 families live in the Imam Ali squatter camp, scavenging from an enormous garbage heap to make a living

Nearly eight years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and despite the general improvement in security over the past three years, nearly half a million Iraqis displaced by the upheavals are still living in squalid squatter settlements, with no quick solution to their plight on the horizon.

They represent the most destitute and vulnerable of the 1.5 million people estimated to be still displaced inside the country.

About half a million others have been able to return to their homes as security has improved since 2008.

The squatter camp known as the Imam Ali settlement, just 20 minutes' drive from the centre of Baghdad, sums up the mass of problems facing Iraqi and international agencies trying to tackle the issue.

There are about 455 families sheltering in this former Iraqi army camp - perhaps 2,500 people in all, living beside, and off, an enormous garbage heap which they scavenge for recyclable materials to sell.

They came here from all over the country, driven from their original homes by a variety of compelling causes, some many years ago.

Escape

Imm Fadhel, who has three small children, says she was chased from her home in Kirkuk by armed Kurds after the downfall of Saddam in 2003.

Her Shia Arab family had been settled in Kirkuk in the 1980s as part of the Baathist regime's Arabisation policy for the oil-rich province, a process which saw many Kurds and Turcomans displaced.

Other families in Imam Ali had to escape the depredations of al-Qaeda and other militant groups in Diyala province and other mixed areas to the north of the capital, as well as from mainly Sunni parts of Baghdad itself.

"Our houses are destroyed and we daren't go back," says Hussein Mohammad, who fled from Dora in southern Baghdad at the height of the sectarian carnage in 2006.

"There's no work here apart from casual labour and scavenging garbage. All we want is a small plot of land that we can call our own."

Not everybody is here as a direct result of violence.

Salima Jabbar led me into the dark hut which she and her husband built out of tins and mud. It is home to them and their three young children.

The newest addition to the family, a week-old baby boy, lies swaddled under a heap of blankets.

Iraqi winters are cruelly cold, but there is no electricity in Salima's house, and no heater.

Image caption Despite the winter cold, flies from the nearby dump are swarming all over the children

Despite the cold, flies from the nearby dump are swarming all over the children.

Salima and her family came here quite recently from Nasiriya in the south, because the drying up of the waters there made it impossible to continue farming.

Like many of their neighbours here, they make a subsistence living from selling tin cans and other garbage items, and raising a few sheep and goats.

'Knight of the Arab nation'

In one way or another, most of the factors that drove people here can be traced back to Saddam Hussein's rule and the chaos that followed.

Ironically, an old slogan written on one of the derelict barracks walls has survived.

It says: "Saddam Hussein, Knight of the Arab nation."

In a situation where every family represents a mass of deep-rooted social and economic problems, there are no easy solutions to hand.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has provided toilets and water tanks for many of the families, and occasionally distributes other items.

But it knows this is not a real answer.

"All of what we are doing here is just temporary, but we hope to find a durable solution for these families," says Nawras Wardieh, who oversees the UNHCR's efforts in this area.

"But there are another 90 or so camps like this in Baghdad alone. It's not an easy situation."

Hopes for future

Altogether, the UNHCR has identified 351 squatter settlements scattered around the country, housing well over 400,000 people.

"When a shock happens to a nation, it's the destitute who suffer first, and end up in these homeless settlements, and that's what we're witnessing right now," says Daniel Endres, Iraq representative for the UN agency.

"I think the most difficult cases are facing us now. We need to look at land allocation, and the building of housing units and infrastructure, and that is obviously not something one can do within a few months. The problem is that Iraq is short of about 1.5 million housing units."

The number of internally displaced people (IDPs) who returned to their original homes last year dropped to about 100,000 after reaching higher levels in the previous two years.

Political uncertainty was blamed for the slowdown, but hopes are pinned on the new Iraqi government to stabilise the situation.

"This new year brings great opportunities, and I think there will be quite different figures if things go the way they are now," says Mr Endres.

The Iraqi government is also hoping to achieve major progress this year in tackling the issue.

"We have plans covering the next four years, but we are trying to find some quick solutions this year as a first step in a long-term programme," says Asghar al-Musawi, deputy minister for the displaced.

The government has started building low-income housing in some southern areas, and plans to extend the programme nationwide, but its budgets are squeezed and it needs the co-operation of other ministries and international agencies to make real progress.

In squatter camps like Imam Ali, it is hard to imagine rapid solutions that would give the hundreds of children there some hope of a better future.

Only about a quarter of them go to school. The world of the internet is far from here.

When I ask Salima Jabbar what aspirations she has for her children, she gestures at the mountains of garbage around their hut and answers:

"That they will grow up."