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NGOs call for a new strategy for displaced people

BAGHDAD, 22 February 2009 (IRIN) - As Iraq observes the third anniversary of the bombing of a revered Shia shrine in the northern city of Samarra that set off nationwide sectarian violence and led to major displacement, the challenges of meeting the growing needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) persist and must be addressed more effectively, experts have said.

“We and others working on the ground are doing all that we can to help, but the needs are still so great and so diverse,” Rafiq Tschannen, Chief of Mission in Iraq for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said in a new report issued on 20 February.

“We urgently need a much greater level of humanitarian response and funding to meet the challenges. The future of Iraq depends on the resolution of the displacement crisis,” Tschannen said two days before the bombing anniversary.

However, Tschannen hailed the fact that few new displacements were occuring and said “the fact that people are returning home, although in smaller than expected numbers, is a positive development which we hope will gather pace”.

In its report, IOM said that since the 2006 Samarra bombing more than 1.6 million Iraqis (about 270,000 families) had been displaced, 5.5 percent of Iraq’s population. Out of these, at least 49,000 families (almost 300,000 individuals) had returned to their homes.

We urgently need a much greater level of humanitarian response and funding to meet the challenges. The future of Iraq depends on the resolution of the displacement crisis.

Those who are still displaced suffer a variety of hardships, top of which is a lack of shelter, followed by unemployment, food shortages, and a lack of basic services such as health care, electricity, clean water and sanitation.

Many of those who have returned to their former homes have found them to be damaged or occupied by other displaced families, the report added.

Government failing to cope

“The scope and complexity of the Iraqi displacement issue is beyond the current capacity of the GoI [Government of Iraq] and, therefore, calls for international involvement,” it said.

The IOM’s concerns were echoed by Iraqi NGOs involved in helping IDPs. “I think the displacement issue has reached the level which we were afraid of; a level which is like a chronic disease we can only deal with by painkillers," Jassim Hassan Naief, head of Baghdad-based al-Zahra NGO, said. "The absence of any political solution will keep the problem as it is for years to come. We have not seen yet any courageous steps by the politicians to solve this problem but instead only humble initiatives."

Ali Khalil Mohammed, head of the Basra-based al-Nidaa NGO, has called on the Iraqi government to adopt a new strategy for IDPs and said he felt it was time for international NGOs to come back to Iraq (most having left since 2003 for security reasons).

"We need an active presence of international NGOs and aid workers in Iraq as the security situation has improved. The problem is so big it needs mass effort to be dealt with and solved," Mohammed said. "And we need the government to adopt a strategy to follow up with those who have returned to their former homes, to meet their needs and make sure they will not be displaced again.”

He suggested a one-year follow-up programme for returnee families with an emphasis on their ensured security.

Sects education

Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia – Iraq’s two major Islamic sects - took a dramatic turn for the worse after the bombing of the Shia al-Askariya shrine in February 2006. The attack in Samarra, about 100 km north of Baghdad, was carried out by what many believe was a Sunni extremist group and was repeated in early 2007.

The al-Askariya shrine contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams - Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and the Shia community considers them to be among his successors.

The shrine is also near the place where the 12th imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Al-Mahdi, known as the “hidden imam”, was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the al-Askariya shrine. Shias believe he will return to earth to restore justice to humanity.