by Rhodri C. Williams
Parliamentary polls in Iraq have gotten off to a bloody start and pre-election controversies over attempts to bar former Baathists from running – as well as ongoing tensions along the boundary with the Kurdish region in the north – do not bode well for stability in the post-election period. However, in its latest overview of internal displacement in Iraq, IDMC issued a timely reminder yesterday that the human consequences of earlier rounds of violence remain unresolved.
For starters, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remained displaced within Iraq and in neighboring countries as a result of the sectarian violence that exploded after the 2006 bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra, and one of the main obstacles to durable solutions remains occupation of their homes:
There are significant numbers of unresolved property issues for pre- and post-2006 IDPs. The current extent of secondary displacement is not known, though an estimated 15 per cent of returned IDPs and 56 per cent of repatriated refugees were in 2009 reportedly unable to access their property (UNHCR, December 2009). In September 2008, MoDM reported that almost 3,500 properties were illegally occupied, including houses, flats, other buildings and land, though anecdotal evidence suggests higher rates of secondary occupation. Nearly 36 per cent of IDPs report their property has been destroyed or damaged and 18 per cent that it is being occupied illegally by militias, local residents or other IDPs; many fear harassment should they attempt to reclaim property (UNHCR, December 2009).
Meanwhile, the background to this displacement crisis is a housing crisis of monumental proportions, with some 1.3 million housing units – or just under one-third more than the current nationwide total of 2.8 million – needed in order to meet demand. The NY Times recently reported on the effects of the shortfall in housing, a daily round of “bathroom crises” that loom larger in the lives of many ordinary Iraqis than lustration of Baathists or distribution of oil revenues:
Beneath the grand issues hanging over Iraq, like the coming national elections or the continuing violence, the day-to-day lives of most Iraqis turn on more quotidian concerns: the lack of electricity; the pervasive corruption; and a housing shortage that forces two, three, even four families to live under the same roof.
Finally, an ongoing process of returning property wrongfully confiscated by the Baathist regime before 2003 is likely to constitute a headache not only for the next round of Parliamentarians but the next…and the next…and the next. A statement by Peter van der Auweraert of IOM at a conference on Iraqi displacement last November indicated that even this fairly well-established restitution program will take two decades to complete at current rates of processing.
As Mr. van der Auweraert and other observers have noted, relatively simple reforms could drastically speed both the pre-2003 and post-2006 restitution processes. Moreover, implementation of a National Housing Plan currently under development with input from UN HABITAT could both facilitate restitution in the short term and put paid to the thousands of bathroom crises over the longer view. A pretty tall order for a new Parliament, but a crucial one.