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Iraq: Displacements Upset Religious, Ethnic Communities

Iraqi refugees in Syria (file photo) (epa) March 1, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Increasing sectarian violence is touching all of Iraq's ethnic and religious minorities, even the smallest. RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite spoke with Dana Graber, who is the Iraq displacement specialist within the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

RFE/RL: The IOM is tracking people who are being forced to flee their homes inside Iraq. What is the current situation there?

Dana Graber: In terms of overall displacement within the country, we have seen that about 700,000 individuals have been forced to leave their homes since February 22 [2006], which was the [date of the] bombing of the shrine in Samarra. And in terms of the displaced persons' religion, the majority who are fleeing are Shi'ite Muslims. We are seeing that about 65 percent are Shi'a and they tend to be moving to more homogeneous communities in the south. About 28 percent are Sunni Muslims and they are fleeing from mixed communities mainly in the south to homogeneous Sunni communities in the center.

"Those families that have the economic ability to leave are leaving the country."

RFE/RL: Iraq’s smaller Christian and other religious minorities also seem to be on the move. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reports that Christian minorities such as the ChaldoAssyrians, or smaller religious groups like the Sabean Mandaeans make up some 40 percent of the refugees who have fled Iraq over the past three years, although they constitute less than 3 percent of the Iraqi population. As IOM tracks movement inside Iraq, do you also see these small minorities seeking shelter in other parts of the country?

Graber: We have about 7 percent, who are Christians, and they tend to be fleeing to [the northern] Ninevah [Province] and to [other] northern governorates (provinces). And then we have a very, very small percentage, less then 1 percent, that represent the Sabean Mandaeans, the Yazidis, and Jewish or any other religions.

RFE/RL: What about Baghdad itself? There are reports that religious communities in the capital are becoming more and more segregated.

Graber: Absolutely. We are seeing that Baghdad has the highest number of displaced populations. And these populations are leaving mixed communities and going to homogeneous communities. Sunnis tend to be settling in the western part of Baghdad, and Shi'as in the eastern part.

RFE/RL: Some people move within the country, others flee abroad. Why do some people choose one, some the other?

Graber: Those families that have the economic ability to leave are leaving the country. Those that have the economic resources and the connections, the contacts or the network, leave the country. So, those that are displaced within the country, we find are those that are most economically vulnerable. And of course if you are fleeing for your life, you will leave the community no matter what, but certainly there are those who simply would love to leave or who want to leave because they fear for their lives but they just do not have economic means to leave.

RFE/RL: How many Iraqis have left the country since the former government was removed in 2003?

Graber: There are about 1 million, who are in Syria, about 700,000 in Jordan and then you have those who are in Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. But we are definitely looking at around 2 million who have left the country.

Iraq In Transition

Iraq In Transition

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