While war as we imagine it ended less than half a decade ago in Iraq, its stabilization is still an ambitious goal for its population. After nearly a century of independence from the British, Iraq has known many conflicts and violence, making its population today face a lack of infrastructure and accommodation like no other. The housing crisis, which today leaves an estimated 300,000 people in unsuitable living conditions, has many roots. The American invasion of 2003, sectarian violence, climate change, natural disasters, and the Covid 19 pandemic are some of the many reasons Iraq still requires Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps today.
Context: Conflicts since 2003
To understand the Iraqi situation today, context on the many conflicts since the early 2000s is necessary.
2003, the US invades the West Asian country. The American justification is “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” This invasion resulted in a new Iraqi government. Although the dictatorship is over, peace is not acquired. Instead, it provides the grounds for sectarian violence and civil war to grow.
2006, Al-Askari Shrine, a key holy site for the Shia branch of Islam, is bombed by the Sunni terrorist organization of Al-Qaeda. Shia militant groups, seeking revenge, engage in violence directed toward the Sunni population of Iraq. Religious sectarian violence increases, ultimately leading to the Iraqi civil war. By now, the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) and the Iraqi government estimate 1.5 million IDPs.
2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) calls for attention to what they call one of the most critical humanitarian situations in the world. The UNCHR estimates the number of displaced people is 4.7 million, 2.7 million are IDPs. The population faces an economic crisis, a high unemployment rate, and limited access to clean water, sanitation, and health care.
2011, the US retrieves its troops. After seven years, American operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn terminate. The now more susceptible Iraqi government faces the growing Al-Qaeda threat.
2014, The Northern Iraq offensive is launched by Al-Qaeda (now called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh). It captures, amongst others, the cities of Tikrit, Mosul, and Samarra. The war between ISIL and the Iraqi government begins.
2017, the Iraq state declares victory against ISIL. The IDP number is now 3.3 million.
After the declaration concluding the war, Daesh still conducts minor insurgency acts, especially in the Nort East of Iraq. Suicide bombings were still a threat in major cities.
Other violent acts, such as the Turkish bombing of Northern Iraqi areas to weaken the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), also threaten the individual security of Iraqis today.
Most of the IDPs stem from 2003 invasion and the sectarian violence that followed it. However, conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s prove that the West Asian country always struggled with population displacement. Iraq, since 1960, has had the most IDPs and refugees in the Middle East.
IDP camps: The origin story
(All numerical evidence is provided by the humanitarian needs overview of Iraq, humanitarian program cycle 2021, issued February 2021 )
The international system recognizes IDP camps as the government's responsibility in the state facing displacements. In Iraq, they were distributed throughout the country during the last two decades to tend to the conflict-affected Iraqi families. These camps have hosted more than 4 million IDPs since the insurgency of ISIS in 2014, representing approximately 10 % of the Iraqi population today. Currently, an estimated 1.3 million IDPs are left, and 85% report vacating their areas of origin (AoO) in 2014. While the Iraqi IDP camps have faced limitations when tending to the basic needs of its inhabitants, they provide a safer and fitter environment than the informal settlements that have replaced them. Indeed, since October 2020, the Iraqi administration has set out an objective to close all IDP camps. The government, who sought to close all camps before the end of 2020, had to see their goal pushed back as the global Covid 19 pandemic destabilized the country. By January 2021, they managed to close fourteen camps, which hosted approximately 25% or 260,000 people of the IDPs that relied on the camps. Humanitarian organizations that support the Iraqi population criticized the closure of the centers, especially the short notice given to the inhabitants of the camps and the lack of general organization from the government. While 67% of the expelled IDPs from the camps returned to their AoO, the rest became out of camp IDPs and resorted to informal settlements.
Informal settlements are different from IDP camps as they are not the state responsibility and therefore are neither regulated nor funded. Higher security threats, sanitation issues and the inability to deliver services such as health care and education result from this situation. It also puts these families in a state of precariousness, where they have higher chances of living in inadequate housing. In 2021, 71% of IDPs living out of camps declared their shelter needed improvement, especially when it came to protecting them from weather conditions. However, in the long run, the lack of access to services offered by the camp may also create social disparities, for example, in education. Approximately half of all IDPs are less than 18 years old. The unavailability of schools affects a large part of them, especially girls. A study by the CCCM Cluster found that girls are more affected by the higher barriers to education than boys, as they are less prone to go to schools that are exterior to their living area due to the higher security threat.
Even more alarming than these numbers are the number of returnees, the families that were able to return to their AoO, that must live in unrehabilitated areas. Indeed, approximately 71% of the IDPs moved because of housing destruction in the first place. Unstable economic growth since 2014, lack of job opportunities and public services, as well as high rates of insecurity left Iraq households unable to rebuild what was once lost. An estimated 51% of returnees live in non-renovated houses.
Current situation: Iraqi human needs due to the conflict
The numbers above make it easy to forget how far Iraq has come. With the new Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework agreement signed in mid-2021 with the UN, the success of the early parliamentary elections, and oil prices going up, Iraq has slowly regained strength. However, many issues linked directly to IDPs are still not over. Today, Iraq faces one main issue: security. First, the nation suffers a general lack of infrastructure. It does not only mean there is a scarcity of adequate housing, but a lack of public service centers aswell. Second, the war contaminated many areas of the country with explosive ordnance that today threaten civilian security. Third, and more specifically, a substantial fraction of the Iraqi population, especially IDPs, suffer from a loss of official documentation during the conflict. This issue threatens national security as identification has become harder but is also a barrier to reorganization as official papers are used for employment purposes, to contract loans, or even become a tenant.
We may conclude that today, Iraq still has many steps to take when it comes to human needs, especially on issues such as property and individual security. Reassuringly, the nations growth is taking momentum and presents today an optimistic front.
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Isabella is a second year War Studies student at King's College, London. She researched and wrote this article as part of the BizGees & War Studies Department Internship programme.