Osama Hassoun, a Shiite Muslim, lived with his family in a predominantly
Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad for roughly 26 years. Then a neighbor
delivered a flier from the Army of Omar ordering the family to
leave or "the verdict would be death."
Hassoun and his family were able to find a family of Sunni Muslims
to arrange a house swap with them in fall 2006, enabling him to
continue working in his job in Baghdad. However, many Iraqis forced
from their homes have faced more difficult circumstances, leaving
both their homes and their cities behind as they flea for their
than 600,000 Iraqis have been displaced since the bombing of a
major mosque in Samarra on Feb. 22, 2006 sparked a new wave of
sectarian violence, according to the U.N. cluster of organizations
formed to deal with the problem of Iraqi refugees and displaced.
The International Organization for Migration, one of the groups
in the U.N. coalition, estimated that an additional 1 million
people could be displaced in the upcoming year.
A rise in sectarian violence, crime and a general lack of security
led many to evacuate their homes, according to the IOM's 2006
report on displacement, with severe humanitarian challenges resulting.
"There is a sense of desperation as people do not know what
the future looks like," said Dana Graber, displacement monitoring
officer for the IOM. "They are not sure when they will be
able to return to their homes, not sure if displacement will become
a permanent situation, not sure of what has happened to their
property back home. All of these conditions create a sense of
desperation and a sense of fear."
Communities stretched to the limit
As sectarian violence increases, Iraqis are moving
from religiously and ethnically diverse areas to homogeneous ones,
Shias are moving from the center to the south, while Sunnis are
fleeing from the south to the upper-center, especially to Anbar.
Kurds were usually displaced within Diyala or to Tameem/Kirkuk,
while Christians fled to Ninewa. The majority of the displaced
were Shia, who also comprise the majority of the general population.
Just like Hassoun, the majority of displaced Iraqis also left
because of direct threats against their lives, the IOM reported.
"When you decide to leave your home and everything you have
built up over life, you only decide to leave it when you're really,
really scared," said Astrid Van Genderen Stort, spokesperson
for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "I
know there are a lot of people who waited a long time and tried
to not move, but it became more impossible to stay."
As Iraqis move for security reasons, some governorates have been
unable to cope with the strain the additional families pose on
infrastructure and resources, Graber said, forcing some areas
to limit the number of displaced Iraqis who can even enter.
Shelter was listed as the No. 1 need for displaced in the IOM
report, followed by food and the ability to work.
Obtaining food has become especially hard for displaced Iraqis
that rely on Oil-for-Food ration cards because it is difficult,
if not impossible, to get the cards transferred to a new region.
The Iraq Ministry of Displacement and Migration, through the
Iraqi Red Crescent Society or local authorities, set up camps
throughout Iraq in 2006 to accommodate actual and expected numbers
of displaced Iraqis. But camps often lacked security or basic
services, and were also distasteful to a conservative Muslim culture.
The camps were not often used, primarily serving as a stopover
for families until they found other living arrangements.
Displaced people who could move in with a family did so, but
the majority relied on renting, driving up prices until demand
made it unaffordable to rent.
Despite the hardships, and in the midst of what some say is a
civil war, host communities rallied around those who were driven
from their homes by violence.
"IOM has been impressed with how welcoming host communities
have been, especially after a drawn-out conflict," said Graber.
The most vulnerable
Aside from relocation concerns, the violence and displacement
have led to troubling humanitarian problems. As male family members
were killed or injured, some women struggled to support their
families and find employment prospects in an economy where traditional
female jobs, such as hairstyling and cleaning homes, have drastically
diminished. As a result, reports of prostitution have risen.
But children have been hit the hardest by the adverse effects
of relocating, IOM said. Many are suffering from post-traumatic
stress disorder symptoms, with little access to psychological
health services. Their education has been interrupted and financial
difficulties forced many to work, some even joining the local
insurgents or militias. They are lured by the prospect of money,
protection, or revenge for incidents against family members.
Humanitarian organizations are scurrying to fill the needs of
the displaced. The United Nations and its partners are facing
problems providing services in exceptionally violent areas, but
they still have access in the southern region of the country,
where they provide emergency shelters, support host families,
provide legal aid and distribute food, Van Genderen Stort said.
In response to the humanitarian problems, Ali Shalan Mohan, director
general of planning and programming development at the Iraq Ministry
of Displacement and Migration, is encouraging Iraqis to return
to their homes to improve their chances of employment.
Mohan said he is aware that security is the primary reason Iraqis
have fled, but he pointed to the recent joint Iraq-U.S. security
crackdown in Baghdad, code-named Operation Imposing Law, as a
positive step toward re-establishing security and allowing Iraqis
to return home. The process "will take time," Mohan
Consequences of displacement
If security doesn't improve, the potential long-term
effects of displacement and segregation are troubling to some
in the international community.
"You see certain areas are more Shia and more Sunni,"
said Van Genderen Stort. "If you want the country to remain
united, you want all groups to be able to live in peace together.
Displacement of certain groups going to certain areas will change
"People are sort of losing hope for return and for the re-establishment
of a multi-ethnic order," said Kathleen Newland, co-director
of the Migration Policy Institute. "That is something that
could affect the long-term future of Iraq and its viability as
a single country."
But some Iraqis cautioned that things are not always as they
appear. Emad Khalil, an engineer who moved to Babil province from
Baghdad after being injured in a street explosion, said the divisions
aren't as solid as some think.
"This title, Shia, Sunni, sectarian, is not 100 percent
true," said Khalil. "It's political. If people want
to get the power, they will use everything in their power."