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IRAQ: Basra closes doors to displaced

Photo: Wikipedia
A map of Iraq highlighting Basra province

BASRA, 12 November 2007 (IRIN) - Basra province, 550km south of Baghdad, can no longer accommodate Iraqi families fleeing insecurity, according to local officials.

“We cannot cope with any more families seeking refuge in our province, whatever their reasons. The governorate is seriously affected by the high number of displaced families,” a senior official in Basra Governing Council, Hassan Abdul-Kareem, told IRIN on 11 November.

“Health services have deteriorated, schools are overcrowded and we aren’t even able to offer a good service to our locals. Things have become worse since the high influx of new arrivals,” Abdul-Kareem said.

He added that according to the local council and the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, more than 40 displaced families have been arriving daily in Basra. The increase has led to higher crime rates, deteriorating security and a rise in the number of commercial sex workers.

“We cannot try to offer something that isn’t available; we lack resources. We understand the desperation of Iraqi families trying to flee violence but the central government has to take urgent action to better disperse displaced families to other governorates,” he said.

“The number of Iraqi families fleeing their homes for safer areas has increased, despite reports that levels of violence have diminished,” said Abdul-Kareem.

Over two million displaced

According to a report released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on 19 September, 2.2 million Iraqis are internally displaced – of whom 30 percent are in the southern governorates.

Mayada Obeid, a spokeswoman for the Basra-based South Peace Organisation, told IRIN that hundreds of families in Basra province lacked all essentials.

“At least 60 percent of displaced children taking refuge in the province don’t attend school, more than 70 percent are suffering from acute or chronic malnutrition and the health service lacks essential medicines, including painkillers and anti-fever drugs,” Obeid said.

“We are sorry that the province is closing its doors to new arrivals but we understand the situation as the local government and NGOs are unable to cope even with those who have already settled there,” she added.

IDPs turned back

Dozens of families who arrived in the province on 9 and 10 November were forced to turn back or head to other southern provinces as Basra security stopped them at check points and prevented them from entering Basra city.

“When they saw our bags, a police officer stopped us and told me and my seven family members that we had to head back to where we came from because the local council had prohibited the entrance of new arrivals,” Raghib Muhammad, a 43-year-old Baghdad resident seeking refuge in Basra, said.

“It was chaotic. We don’t have anywhere to go and have improvised a tent on the outskirts of the province until someone could help us or give us an idea of what to do. We fled the horror of Baghdad with the hope of finding peace here but it seems our problems are just starting,” Muhammad added.

Obeid said local NGOs have started contacting other southern governing councils, asking for the new arrivals to be accepted in their displacement camps. However, she said the situation was difficult and most provinces had insufficient resources.

“We hope a solution will be found and these families will be able to find a place where they can sleep and eat with security and peace,” she added.

Refugees forced home as funds dry up

BAGHDAD, 12 November 2007 (IRIN) - Broke and desperate, Ziad Qahtan Naeem and his family have returned to their house in war-battered Baghdad, a move they likened to a “death sentence”.

The six-member Shia family fled the Sunni-dominated Mansour neighbourhood of western Baghdad nearly two years ago and took refuge in Syria, joining more than one million Iraqis there.

But they have become part of a growing wave of Iraqis leaving Syria - not because they are confident of Iraq’s future but because they have run out of money.

Others are returning because the Syrian authorities have made it more difficult for them to stay as most Iraqis cannot work legally in Syria and have been surviving on savings or handouts from relatives.

“Being in Baghdad again means approaching your death sentence,” said Naeem, who supported his three sons, wife and mother in Syria after selling his tiny supermarket, his wife’s gold and other belongings.

“At any moment you or any member of your family could be a statistic in a police file,” added 46-year-old Naeem, who spent US$30,000 in Syria.

Over 46,000 return in October

The Iraqi government has said the number of Iraqis returning was growing, with more than 46,000 people coming home in October.

According to a government spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, 46,030 people returned to Iraq in October alone from neighbouring countries. He attributed the large number to the "improving security situation".

"The level of terrorist operations has dropped in most of the capital's neighbourhoods, due to the good performance of the armed forces," al-Moussawi told a press conference on 7 November in the heavily guarded Green Zone. He did not give returnee numbers before October.

The latest figure comes as Iraq's neighbours, particularly Syria and Jordan, tightened their borders.

Living in limbo in Syria and Jordan

Syria is home to at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees and Jordan has about 750,000. Both countries are struggling to provide essential services to incoming Iraqis and are requesting entry visas. Iraqis say most of these applications have been declined.

Many Iraqis are living in limbo, unable to work and running out of whatever money they were able to bring out of Iraq.

Those who fled to Syria or Jordan before the new rules took effect must leave when their three-month permits expire unless they have been officially recognised by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) - a process that can take months.

Mu’taz Ali Safwan, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer who lived in Amman, the Jordanian capital, returned home because he is “fed up with all humiliation of life as a foreigner”. Before fleeing Iraq nearly a year ago, Safwan worked at the Ministry of Industry. But in Amman he worked in a barber’s shop.

“I know that I’m jeopardising my life with this return, but I’ve had enough and my savings are gone and I couldn’t get official residency and I had to live as a fugitive fearing the authorities,” Safwan added.

According to the UNHCR, two million Iraqis have fled. Some 54,000 Iraqis are in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Gulf countries; Egypt has absorbed 100,000.

The US admitted 1,608 Iraqis as refugees this past year. Sweden has admitted more than 18,000 since 2006, the highest number in Europe, but now says it too is tightening asylum rules.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2007

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