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Iraq: The World's Fastest Growing Displacement Crisis

Introduction

Four years after the U.S. launched its attack against Iraq, the civil war there has produced a humanitarian crisis marked by the world’s fastest growing refugee and internally displaced populations. But Iraq, Washington and the U.N. do not acknowledge the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis. This has led to an inadequate response, both within Iraq and in the region.

The U.S. is spending $10.3 billion a month in Iraq, but little of that is going to ease the strain of displacement, and the U.N. has not established a strong presence. “Iraqis don’t see the U.N. anywhere,” a relief worker says. While Iraqis are flooding into neighboring countries—some two million have taken refuge outside Iraq—the population of internally displaced, while far less visible, is just as desperate and growing just as fast. The U.N. estimates that 1.9 million people are displaced within Iraq. This includes 1 million people who had been forced from their homes before 2003 and an additional 727,000 displaced since the February 2006 bombing of Samarra.

The agency is preparing for internal displacement to increase by as much as one million more people this year. If the U.N. is right, more than 12 percent of those within Iraq would be displaced, as Iraqis race to escape sectarian violence and de facto ethnic cleansing in southern and central areas. Iraq is becoming Balkanized as formerly mixed neighborhoods disintegrate into Sunni and Shii te redoubts, all afraid of one another, and leaving minorities such as the Christians or the Mandeans with no safe place to go to. A Sunni imam born and raised in Basra, a largely Shii te area, said: “I used to have Shii te friends and neighbors. But everything changed. After I was beaten up and threatened several times, I had to leave to protect my family.”

According to estimates by the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, he is one of 160,000 Iraqis who have moved to Iraq’s most stable region, the three governorates of Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniya in the north. During a two week survey of conditions in this largely autonomous area administered by the Kurdish Regional Government, Refugees International found that many of the internally displaced are struggling to survive, the victims of inattention, inadequate resources, regional politics, and bureaucratic obstacles. But as one woman who fled north from Baghdad said, “Here at least, we are safe.”

While U.S. and Iraqi forces are finding it difficult to make Iraq stable and secure, it should be easy to help the displaced—once authorities recognize the magnitude of the problem.