Thursday, August 04, 2005

Iraq: more than 450,000 homeless across the country

Two years of instability and war have created a massive number of squatters in Iraq, the UN News Agency IRIN (the Integrated Regional Information Network -- homepage at reports.

The facts are severe: More than 450,000 people homeless (almost 2 percent of the country's population), 54,000 in Baghdad alone.

Thanks to Annia Ciezadlo, who's stationed in the Middle East and Iraq doing stories for various news outlets, for sending this piece my way. I couldn't find it on the IRIN site, so I reproduce it in full here:

IRAQ: Housing problems increase as conflict hits hearth and home

BAGHDAD, 3 August (IRIN) - Adel Abdel Sada is not proud of his home. Cobbled together from the wreckage of old buildings, cartons and bits of scrap, the ramshackle, jerry-built dwelling is all the 39-year-old unemployed security guard can afford.

"I've lived here for four years since I lost my job," he said. "I built two rooms, a bath, a kitchen and a fence. I know no-one would like to live in a house like this, but what can I do? I need a home for my family."

Sada is not alone, and many of Iraq's low-income or unemployed families are struggling to find adequate housing countrywide.

The main reason for terrible living conditions for thousands of Iraqis is that many houses have been destroyed over years of conflict in the country.

The number, officials say, has been increasing daily and very little investment has gone into the sector.

Ahmed D'lemi, a senior official at the Ministry of Construction and Housing, said that according to its records, more than 450,000 families were homeless countrywide. Most were living in what he described as "very deteriorated or miserable conditions".

"This number may shock the international humanitarian organisations but it's the reality of Iraq now," D'lemi said. "Our government is working hard to reverse this statistic, but we need very large investment."

He added that the number could be much higher than their records suggest, since many homeless people have not been registered due to the prevailing insecurity in Iraq.

At a conference held in Jordan in November 2004 by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, known as UN-Habitat, and Iraqi government officials it was stated that Iraq needed 1.5 million new homes to cover needs, confirming the vast scale of the problem, but lack of funds has delayed the process.

In Baghdad alone, more than 54,000 people have been identified as homeless, according to local government officials.

Recent conflict in the country, especially in the western province of Anbar, where US forces are flushing out insurgents, has caused thousands of residents to flee and become homeless, according to the Ministry of Construction and Housing.

US forces justify say their operations are needed to ensure security in the long term.

"Our military operations in the country are to defend the future of Iraq and bring safety to Iraqi people, even if houses have been destroyed," Lt-Col Steven Boylan, spokesperson for the US forces in the country said.

"We will rebuild them in time, and they will be better housing than before the fighting."

However, he did not give any specific details on how and when construction would start.

Homeless families are not optimistic.

"My house was totally destroyed in Fallujah in the last conflict and, until now, I'm living with my family in an abandoned school just outside the city, awaiting a solution from the government," said Muhammad Kubaissy, a father of five.

"They are fighting insurgents and the result is more homeless people every day in the country," he added.

The country's housing problem dates back to previous conflicts, but has been exacerbated by the war, insurgency and instability in the recent past.

After the Iraq-Iran war, in the 1980s, the government of former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, announced the need for more than three million new homes in Baghdad and surrounding districts.

"A plan was established at that time to solve the housing crisis but, with Iraq's entry into the [first] Gulf War in 1991, this plan was completely halted," said Bassim al-Ansary, general director of planning at the ministry.

"The private sector declined as well because of weak funding, which made matters worse - as did the sanctions imposed by the United Nations in Iraq."

The only project that was developed in Iraq between then 2003 was by UN-Habitat, official said. Since 1997, it has helped to provide over 20,000 houses, 475 primary schools, 220 secondary schools, 130 health centres between other projects.

UN-Habitat stopped its work in the country after the terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, having to scale back staff temporarily, but is working from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

According to al-Ansary, more than 1,000 houses have been built since 2003, mainly for teachers at universities and government workers in central Iraq who were in drastically living situation conditions.

In order to address the problem, the ministry has proposed five projects in different places around the country, including several new lower-income housing tracts to cover emergency needs.

However, only three, at a cost of US$ 40 million, have been undertaken due to funding shortages.

"We have already started three new housing projects, one in [the northern city of] Kirkuk with 600 homes, in Baghdad with 284, and in [the southern city of] Karbala with 483 housing units," al-Ansary said. They should be completed in 2006, he added.

The two projects pending, costed at US $12 million, are for housing needs in the northern city of Mosul and for Missan in the south.

But locals claim that progress is slow and that they continue to suffer.

"For two years we had no home and I lived with my family in abandoned buildings without water or electricity," said Suad Mohammed from Sadr City, a vast low-income neighbourhood in Baghdad dominated by Shi'ites.

"Then, together with some other families, we moved into a small house with two rooms and a kitchen. There are around 11 people living with us waiting for a solution through the government housing project."

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