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Iraq: Sectarian Violence Increasing Internally Displaced

Iraqi soldiers talk to occupants of camp near Ba'qubah in May (epa) PRAGUE, October 5, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The huge increase in sectarian violence in Iraq, following the attack on the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra on February 22, has forced thousands of Iraqis flee their homes, with many moving to the relatively secure Kurdish regions in the north to escape the bloodshed, according to Iraqi government sources and international humanitarian organizations.

The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration reported on September 28 that nearly a quarter of a million Iraqis have been displaced since the Samarra attacks. Approximately 80,000 Iraqis registered with the ministry as refugees from July to August and 40,000 families have sought government aid in the last seven months.

The data is based on the ministry's estimate that the average Iraqi family has six members, thereby bringing the latest tally to 240,000 people compared with 162,000 people at the end of July.

However, ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz said the number of displaced persons could be far higher as many Iraqis may have fled abroad rather than register with the ministry. "The reason for this increase is that the security situation in some provinces has deteriorated considerably, forcing people to flee their homes in fear for their lives," Nowruz told Reuters on September 28.

An unidentified ministry official indicated that that Ba'qubah, the capital of Diyala Governorate, has seen the steadiest rise in people either fleeing or being driven from their homes, AFP reported on September 30. "We expect this number to increase, especially in Ba'qubah, because right now there is a lot of violence there and a lot of families are leaving," the official said.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the refugee crisis is worsening at a dramatic rate, with nearly 9,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes per week and almost 190,000 refugees currently in central and southern Iraq, AFP reported on October 3. IOM said that the sheer number of refugees indicated that the displacement was starting to resemble a "permanent settlement," and there are growing concerns that the plight of the refugees will worsen as the sectarian violence has shown no signs of subsiding and as winter approaches.

"The vast majority of those displaced this year are not planning to return to their former homes. If this is not to become a chronic humanitarian crisis, we need to put in place livelihood and integration programs in addition to providing emergency assistance such as food and water," IOM Chief of Mission for Iraq Rafiq Tschannen said.

Many Flee North To Avoid Violence

The violence has also forced thousands of Shi'a and Sunnis to flee to the relatively peaceful Kurdish-controlled regions of northern Iraq. However, Kurdish officials along with international humanitarian organizations are struggling to keep up with the rapid influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) entering the Kurdish regions.

A tent camp erected outside Al-Najaf, south of Baghdad (epa)

Dr. Giorgio Francia an official with Qandil, a Swedish refugee agency, said that around 10,000 families or approximately 50,000 people have fled to Irbil and the surrounding areas in the last several months, Voice of America (VOA) reported on September 28. He warned that the continued flow of IDPs may force Kurdish officials to create refugee camps, but some officials balk at this notion since such camps may exist for decades, thereby making people dependent upon them.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional government coordinator for UN affairs, Dindar Zebari, said that the resources of the regional government and the UN to aid IDPs were already being overtaxed and he would request help from the Iraqi central government if any more refugees are to be taken in.

"Because most of the support and help that was given to Iraq was concentrated in the south, and also in the center of Iraq, for the last three years, and the issue of refugees and IDPs has not been taken care of in our part of the country," VOA quoted Zebari as saying.

Palestinian Refugees' Plight Worsens

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement on October 3 indicating concern at the plight of the nearly 20,000 Palestinians remaining in Iraq, down from an estimated 34,000 in 2003. The UNHCR said that Palestinians inside Iraq "lack protection," have had serious problems obtaining identity cards, and have been the subject of harassment, threats, and kidnappings.

At a news conference in Geneva, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis noted a specific incident last month when armed men hand-delivered death threats to several Palestinians in Baghdad, setting off widespread panic among the Palestinian population. Some Palestinians were believed to have received preferential treatment by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and they have become targets since his ouster in 2003.

Pagonis also expressed concern for the 330 Palestinians at a makeshift refugee camp at the Al-Tanf border crossing with Syria who fled Iraq four months ago. She described the conditions at the camp as "deplorable," with inadequate medical and sanitation facilities, and warned that as winter approached, the situation would worsen as rains could flood and destroy the camp.

Meanwhile, Syria has refused to allow entry to refugees stranded at the border after it previously permitted 300 Palestinians to enter in May. The UNHCR expressed concern for those who were allowed in, who were placed at the El Hol camp, citing their temporary status, limited freedom of movement, and bleak prospects for the future.

Refugee camp near Baghdad (epa)

The agency also said that 150 Palestinians from Iraq who are living in the Al-Ruwayshid camp in Jordan are preparing for a harsh winter, and all efforts to find solutions for them have failed. Jordan previously admitted 386 Palestinian refugees with Jordanian family connections in 2003. However, the Jordanian government has recently refused entry to other Palestinians from Iraq, and called on other nations in the region to offer them refuge and share in the burden.

The UNHCR said attempts by the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led forces have "yielded only modest results," and called on support from the international community to find solutions for Palestinians from Iraq.

The consequences of the continuing mass displacement of Iraqis are somewhat complicated, depending upon on their ethnic and religious affiliation and their location. For example, IDPs usually have an easier time integrating into communities that share the same religious association. However, tensions could still be inflamed if the new arrivals start competing for resources and scarce employment opportunities.

As for those Iraqis who have fled to the north, their presence in the region may lead to greater insecurity if death squads and armed gangs decided to head north as well, to seek revenge and settle old scores. Furthermore, if many IDPs decide to remain in the north, their relations could deteriorate with the Kurdish population, who may resent their presence once they begin to compete for resources and jobs.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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