First Published: 2009-07-26

Iraq's internal refugees not safe to go home

Many Iraqis delay returning home to towns they fled from as they still fear for their lives.


Middle East Online

Some two million people are internally displaced within Iraq

BAGHDAD - Standing in the baking Baghdad heat, Ali Helo is upbeat about his wretched surroundings. Conditions in the Chikouk camp for the internally displaced may be desperate, but at least "it's safe here."

Despite improvements in security across the country in recent months, many Iraqis have delayed returning home to the towns they fled from, fearing for their lives amid raging sectarian violence that left tens of thousands dead.

And 47-year-old Helo, a Shiite who left his predominantly Sunni home town of Abu Ghraib, is no different: "No, I don't want to go back -- some people from here went back and they were killed," he said.

Despite the squalid conditions -- there are piles of litter on the street, the ground on which he sleeps is not flat, there is no electricity and he only recently received access to clean water -- Helo does not want to leave.

His is a common story among the mainly Shiite residents of Chikouk, 80 percent of whom fled Abu Ghraib for the north Baghdad camp.

The United Nations estimates that some two million people are internally displaced within Iraq.

"We're obviously seeing a very bad situation here, and there are other bad situations in Iraq," L. Craig Johnstone, the UN's deputy high commissioner for refugees, said while visiting Chikouk during a five-day trip to Iraq.

"This is a country that has been in conflict for a long time. One would not expect it to be any different than the way it is. That being said, it is not an acceptable situation," he said.

The United Nations notes that in addition to the problems Helo listed, the area lacks a functioning sewerage system or regular rubbish disposal, it is rife with poorly constructed shelters and many residents have health problems.

Things were made worse when the local authorities stopped providing services because of government decrees that the refugees were squatting on state property.

As a result, the UN refugee agency is the only organisation providing any services to the camp, although the local authorities coordinate with the UNHCR to help deliver water and non-food items, a UN spokeswoman said.

Government officials say they have signed an agreement with Sunni and Shiite communities in Abu Ghraib to ensure the safety of returning refugees, with plans for some to begin moving back within weeks.

"The situation is good in Abu Ghraib," Samir Khatan, director of the migrants and displaced ministry's humanitarian agency, said. "The Iraqi army controls it, they have checkpoints and patrols."

He added that the government was working to bridge differences between Sunni and Shiite communities in Abu Ghraib, and to provide support and services for families who return.

But some in the camp remain unconvinced.

Sheikh Zuhair Juma Jassim Salami, head of the local council, said several hundred families did try to return to Abu Ghraib in recent years, but some were killed and word of their fate soon filtered back to Chikouk.

This reluctance to go home is not just focused on Abu Ghraib either.

Mohammed Araq Abed says he was twice displaced, and despite health problems that have left him unable to work, he has no plans to return home to Tajji, a mostly Sunni area on Baghdad's northern outskirts.

Abed, who looks much older than his 35 years, said when he first left Tajji he and his family stayed in a school. Then, believing the situation at home had improved, he returned, only to find that it was still dangerous.

Two years ago, he moved his family to Chikouk and is unequivocal about his intentions: "I want to stay here, I feel safe here."

Johnstone acknowledged that not all of the camp's residents want to return home, saying: "Some are clearly looking to move back to their homes, and some are clearly not looking to move back to their homes."

He also said that "the outcome of the sectarian violence precludes their really moving back."

Although security has improved markedly in Iraq since Johnstone's last visit in 2007, he noted that the issues of internally displaced people and security were closely linked.

"I don't think there's a solution to the fundamental issues in Iraq if you don't address this problem," Johnstone said.

"If you allow these situations to continue, and it will erode security, you allow the security situation to deteriorate and you are going to cause even more problems than you have now."


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