“This place is a building site. It is always cold. There is no hot water to wash with and when it rains it floods because there is no roof in some of the rooms. A few months ago it was snowing and it was as cold in here as being outside. We all got sick.”
14-year-old Latif* sits shivering on the bare floor in the unfinished building he and his family now call home as he tells me his story.
Like more than 90% of the 2.5 million Iraqis displaced by the ongoing conflict in Iraq, Latif is not living in a camp.
Most have fled to urban areas, with hundreds of thousands now renting housing or sharing rooms with family or friends. A lucky few are living with strangers who have kindly taken them in, while thousands more occupy public buildings or land such as schools, sports centres and communal halls.
For the increasingly desperate, unfinished buildings, makeshift shelters and abandoned homes are too often all that is left.
A precarious existence
Astoundingly there are now more than 350,000 displaced Iraqis, mostly women and children, currently housed in unfinished buildings just like Latif’s.
Buildings with no windows, doors or roofs. Buildings that offer little protection from either the elements or other people.
“In the summer it was so hot that we would sleep outside on the roof,” Latif tells me. “One night someone crept in and stole all of our savings. Everything we had. Maybe if this house had a door and windows it would not have happened.”
What makes this story even more tragic is that every month Latif’s family have to pay 100,000 Iraqi Dinars (around £50) in rent to stay in this miserable place. With no steady income or savings left to fall back on, it’s a sum they struggle to afford.
Now Latif has to work to help support his family, spending his days working at the local market carrying heavy bags of food for pocket change:
“Every day I see other children who have enough money going to school,” he tells me. “But instead I am in the market working for barely anything. It makes me so sad.”
Nowhere else to go
So why would anyone choose to stay in such a place as this rather than in a camp?
For some it is a choice, with cities presenting opportunities that a closed camp often can’t: the chance to stay anonymous, make money, and potentially start a brand new life.
But for an increasing majority it’s simply because they have nowhere else to go.
Today 2.5 million people have been displaced in Iraq and every day that number is rising. Camps are becoming more and more overcrowded. Newly displaced families are running out of options.
This isn’t just an issue specific to Iraq. Over 51.2 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide. The vast majority of them aren’t living in camps. For them, adequate housing and shelter are frequently in short supply; public services and humanitarian assistance such as education, health, water and sanitation are often more difficult to access.
The increasing flight of internally displaced persons to urban areas is a global trend that must be addressed. It’s critical that as a humanitarian community we make sure those most in need receive proper support no matter where they are. If we don’t, families like Latif’s will continue to fall through the cracks and miss out on the protection and assistance they so desperately need.
Save the Children is supporting displaced Iraqi families in both camp and non-camp settings, as well as communities that are hosting large numbers of those displaced. Our urban Child Friendly Spaces provide children with a safe and nurturing environment in which they can play, learn and receive the support they need to get over their experiences. To date we have reached almost 500,000 displaced Iraqi children and their families, providing them with food, clean water, shelter, protection and education.
*names changed to protect identities