Migration reshapes Iraq's sectarian landscape
BAGHDAD: A vast internal migration is radically reshaping Iraq's ethnic and sectarian landscape, according to new data collected by thousands of relief workers, but displacement in the most populous and mixed areas is surprisingly complex, suggesting that partitioning the country into semiautonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish enclaves would not be easy.
The migration data, which are expected to be released this week by the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization but were given in advance to The New York Times, indicate that in Baghdad alone there are now nearly 170,000 families, accounting for almost a million people, that have fled their homes in search of security, shelter, water, electricity, functioning schools or jobs to support their families.
The figures show that many families move twice, three times or more, first fleeing immediate danger and then making more considered calculations based on the availability of city services or schools for their children. Finding neighbors of their own sect is just one of those considerations.
Over all, the patterns suggest that despite the ethnic and sectarian animosity that has gripped the country, at least some Iraqis would rather continue to live in mixed communities.
The Red Crescent compiled the figures from reports filed as recently as the end of August by tens of thousands of relief workers scattered across all parts of Iraq who are straining to provide aid for an estimated 280,000 families swept up nationwide in an enormous and complex migration.
A bird's-eye view of the data suggests that since the bombing of a revered Shiite mosque in February 2006 triggered severe sectarian strife, Sunnis generally have been moving north and west, Shiites south, and Christians to the far north. But the picture in the mixed and highly populous center of the country is, if anything, becoming more complicated.
It is this mixed population center, the often violent interface between more homogeneous Sunni and Shiite regions, that some advocates of partition have suggested would separate into more homogeneous areas as Iraqis seek safety among members of their own sects.
But the new figures show that the migration is not neatly dividing Baghdad along the Tigris, separating Sunnis who live predominantly on the west bank from Shiites, who live predominantly on the east. Instead, some Sunnis are moving to the predominantly Shiite side of the river, into neighborhoods that are relatively secular, mixed and where services are better, according to Red Crescent staff.
Just last week within Baghdad itself, a Sunni tribe of 250 families that lived in Dora, one of the most violent neighborhoods, was forced to flee. Rather than going to an area where they would be with others of their sect, they went to their neighbors to the south, in Abu Dshir, a Shiite area. They were welcomed by the local tribe and given places to stay in people's homes, according to field staff both for the Red Crescent and the International Office for Migration, an intergovernmental agency.
Still, some poor Iraqis, for example those fleeing ethnic cleansing by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in villages in the eastern province of Diyala, make the only choice available to them: head for Baghdad and stop in one of the refugee camps on the fringes of the city amid the other desperately poor.
The size and scope of the migration has elicited deep concern on the part of aid officials. Relief workers "have a mammoth task to alleviate the sufferings of this vast number of Iraqis," a draft report on the Red Crescent figures says.
Although Iraqis of every income level, sect, ethnicity and region of the country have been caught up in this migration, perhaps the most tragic consequences turn up where enormous numbers of poor Iraqi villagers have collected in camps, shantytowns and urban slums after leaving behind almost everything they owned, said Dr. Said Hakki, a physician who is the president of the Red Crescent.
"It's tragic, absolutely tragic," Hakki said. "I have been a surgeon all my life, and I have seen death many times; that never scared me, never shook me. But when I saw the toll here in Iraq," he said, referring to the groups of displaced people, "that definitely shook me."
"How could a human let human beings suffer so much for so long?" Hakki said.
A jump in the recorded number of displaced people toward the end of the summer led the Red Crescent to delay releasing the report for about 10 days as the organization checked and double-checked the figures, Hakki said.
But he said that the figures, based on data collected in 130 branch offices, including 43 in Baghdad, by about 95,000 Red Crescent volunteers and a smaller number of regular employees, survived the scrutiny.
The Red Crescent figures, which are collected periodically, have broadly been consistent with data assembled by the International Organization for Migration, which is affiliated with the United Nations and collects its data from the Iraqi government and other sources.
But when contacted about the politically delicate findings in the latest Red Crescent report, a spokesman for the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, which tracks internal displacement for the government, said he believed that the figures were too high.
"The Red Crescent Organization, and even other international organizations, we don't consider their statistics to be official," said the spokesman, Sattar Nowroz.
Nowroz repeated the government's oft-stated claim that thousands of families have returned to their homes after the start of a new Iraqi security plan that is running concurrently with an American troop increase.
But figures at both the Red Crescent and the Organization of Migration have previously shown that the numbers of internally displaced Iraqis has soared since the troop increase began. Nowroz conceded that the migration ministry had just 600 employees nationwide to track displaced people.
The ministry tracks only displaced people who come forward voluntarily and pass a series of bureaucratic hurdles involving paperwork at a minimum of three different government offices, Nowroz said.
Red Crescent workers point to a number of trends during the summer that contributed to the increased numbers that their organization is seeing in Baghdad.
Fighting in Diyala set people on the roads, fleeing the ongoing military operations by the American military against extremist Sunni Arab fighters. People who had fled to Jordan and Syria began to return because both countries began to enforce visa requirements for Iraqis who wanted to stay.
Sunnis also began to flee their homes because of the clashes between the Awakening movements, groups of Sunni Arab tribesmen who banded together to fight Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown extremist group which American intelligence sources believe has foreign leadership.
Iraqis considering just when to return from abroad may also have chosen the end of summer because school was approaching and some neighborhoods have seen reduced violence with the increased American troop presence. But when the Iraqis return, they often find that their homes have been looted or occupied, and they join the rolls of displaced people.
"Not all of this is because of the unsecure situation," said Mazin Salloum, secretary general of the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization.
In Baghdad, many of the displacements measured by the Red Crescent are secondary or tertiary. Many people have already moved once and the statistics are reflecting their second or, in some cases, their third move. While the fear of sectarian violence or of being caught in ongoing military operations motivates people to make their initial move, it is the desire for better living conditions that drives them to make subsequent ones. Some people first go to relatives in areas outside Baghdad, but then migrate back into the city as they search for jobs, and for more access to electricity, water and schools.
"It's like sea waves, tides that come in and out," said Laith Abdul Aziz, the Red Crescent's disaster manager for Iraq, who has been displaced himself.
"All this data will be reversed," he said. "Winter is coming and those who have migrated to villages will come back to where there is good shelter, roofs that don't leak, fuel, food."
But some of the poorest displaced do not have even those choices. The Boob Sham camp, run by the Red Crescent Organization, sits forlornly on a swath of scrub desert that was once the site of an Iraqi Army barracks bombed by the Americans in 2003.
Opened in northeastern Baghdad in June for 17 Shiite families of the Anbekia tribe who were fleeing Diyala, it now has 52 families, and two of them just arrived Monday. Most live in tents but a few families have one room shelters made of mud mixed with hay.
Farmers and village tradesmen, they fled when gunmen from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia began a systematic sweep of their area. Hadi Hassan, 39, who came here with 13 family members, said six villages of the Anbekia tribe had already been emptied, including his.
He heard from neighbors that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia blew up his house after he left. Now the militants were continuing their cleansing, and another four villages of the tribe were under pressure. The families were poor before they fled, but because most of them had no time to pack their belongings, they are even poorer now.
Hassan's family was one of those. He loaded his wife and children into his car and drove to Baghdad because he has two sisters living here, but when he arrived he found that each had a one-room house for their families; there was no room for his.
Since he arrived he has had to sell his car — he got $1,500 for it — because he needed to feed his family of six and he wanted to help the other seven relatives who fled with him, who are all women and children. Three of his sons stared shyly at the Red Crescent staff members; a fourth was nursing at Hassan's wife's breast. "Please help our men find a job," she said.
The children traced designs with their plastic sandals in the shelter's earthen floor and then stood in silence in the doorway staring at the open scrubland. "They remember their home, they remember climbing our date palms and eating the fruit right from the tree," Hassan said. "But here. ..."
His voice trailed off, and he gestured at the scrub that lay just outside and shook his head. "No trees."