IRAQ: Karbala IDPs, squatters encouraged to return
Insufficient funds and an overburdened public services infrastructure have prompted authorities in Iraq’s central province of Karbala to assist the voluntary return of up 90,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 100,000 squatters.
“The provincial displacement committee will go through the files of the registered displaced families, and find those who are not registered, in addition to the squatters, to encourage them to return to their areas of origins, which are safe now,” Nussaif Jassim Mohammed, deputy head of Karbala Provincial Council, told IRIN.
He said there were 11,000 to 14,000 displaced families (averaging 6.4 persons per family) living in the province either with relatives or in rented accommodation. In addition, there were some 100,000 squatters living in about 20 different areas.
Squatters are those the government says took advantage of the chaos that followed the 2003 invasion to occupy abandoned public buildings or build makeshift homes illegally on government land.
“This situation is a burden on the province’s budget and is causing insufficient public services as they need drinking water, sewage networks, electricity and houses in addition to competing with locals for jobs,” Mohammed said.
A 2006 bombing by Sunni militants of a Shia shrine north of Baghdad spawned tit-for-tat sectarian killings nationwide. According to Mohammed, by 2008 there were 26,000 displaced families living in Karbala province, which has a population of some 1.2 million and has enjoyed relative peace since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
With improved security over the past two years, about half the province’s IDPs had returned.
In Karbala city, about 120km southwest of Baghdad, Mohammed said these IDPs and squatters were straining an infrastructure already trying to cope with millions of Shia pilgrims - mostly from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India - flooding the city every year to visit the highly revered shrines of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons.
Mohammed said local authorities and the central government will offer financial aid, free transportation and housing materials to encourage IDPs and squatters to return, but “their return will be voluntary”.
“Many of the displaced families are from [the central] provinces of Diyala and Baghdad and the town of Tal Afar in [the northern] province of Mosul,” he said. “And now these places are safe enough.”
Since 2003, some four million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes, either abroad - chiefly to Syria and Jordan - or to other areas of the country.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), improved security led to the return of some 300,000 IDPs and nearly 80,000 refugees in 2008 and 2009.