Iraq’s southern city of Basra is now one of the nation’s most prosperous and in comparison to some areas, one of its safest. Hardly surprising then, that there’s been a flow of refugees and displaced people to Basra. And this has resulted in a number of problems - one of the most obvious is the growing number of shanty towns or squatter settlements built by the new immigrants to Basra.
Recent reports suggest the number of squatter houses has gone from around 30,000 in 2010 to about 44,000 now – some estimates go even higher, suggesting there may be around 60,000 squatter houses in Basra currently, with around 150 families arriving in the area monthly. And they come with an estimated 58,000 unlicensed small retailers and workshops, according to the latest statement from Basra’s governor, Khalaf Abdul Samad.
Part of the reason for the growth in the squatter towns is the fact that people are still moving around Iraq to either escape violence or seek jobs. The fact that existing political parties in opposition in the state government are unable to come up with a clear policy toward ration cards held by Iraqis and where they may be validated and then used to claim various staple goods is another reason why the displaced families are able to move around so freely and to settle at will.
But now there are complaints that the settlements are starting to impede genuine development in the area. “When we started on work for the sewage project for neighbourhood of Sabkhat al-Arab we were surprised to discover that there were 35 squatter houses occupying the place we were supposed to build on,” says one local contractor, Hatem al-Mohsen. Al-Mohsen says he then asked the local government to deal with the squatter housing, so that they could begin work on the sewage project.
“But we were told the committee was unable to take any action,” he explained. Al-Mohsen was told he had to negotiate directly with the representative of the families living there. He did so and found out that the families’ representative was working with (and protected by) tribal connections who had promised to register the land in the families’ names. They would do this in return for the political support of the families. Eventually after a series of negotiations al-Mohsen reports that his firm agreed to pay each squatter family IQD5 million (around US$3,300). “But as soon as we demolished those houses, we were shocked to find new ones there almost immediately,” al-Mohsen says. “It was so quick that we don’t even know how, or when, they managed to build them.”
It is true that the squatter neighbourhoods are like shifting sands on a beach – as soon as one area is demolished another springs up, possible – as in al-Mohsen’s story – in the same place.
There is also a political dimension to the situation. The location of the houses and the electoral role that their inhabitants may play in upcoming elections is also controversial.
“During previous elections, some political forces have used this issue - of illegal housing – for their own ends, and in a very ugly way,” Ali Faleh al-Kanaan, public relations officer for the local branch of Iraqi political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said. “And that’s part of the reason why this problem has yet to be solved.”
For example, in early 2010, just two months before national elections, the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, instructed authorities that they should not evict squatters from municipal land without compensating them somehow.
Construction worker Fuad Abdul-Mahdi lives with his wife and baby in one of the shanty towns in Ashar in central Basra. “I bought my house from one of the people living there and I have expanded it a little bit. About a year ago police raided the town; they fired their guns in the air and they tried to demolish the houses here,” Abdul-Mahdi says. “They told us we had to leave and that only the people who were originally here were entitled to any kind of compensation. They told us we had to leave because we were living on state land that was about to be used for development projects.”
However Abdul-Mahdi says he won’t leave his home. “Let them demolish the place around us,” he says angrily. “I borrowed money from friends and relatives to buy this place and I won’t leave it just like that.”
Mention the local committee tasked with removing their homes and the people living in the shanty towns get angry. Some of the locals who have been here longest recall former Basra governor, Sheltagh Aboud Sherad’s promises of financial payouts if they left the state land. These promises were never kept, they say. Of course, nobody here will talk explicitly about the support from certain parties in the area, if the squatters vote for them. However there’s a feeling amongst them that they’re not going to be going anywhere soon and that, as one says, “this is a long story”.
There is also significant prejudice against the squatter families in the area. Locals say the squatters compete with locals for jobs and tap into the local power and water networks for free. They also assume that the squatter villages are out of control, lawless and refuges for drug dealers and other criminals.
And they call them “Hawasem”. It means “decisive” in Arabic and is the word that former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used to use to describe the war he said he would fight against the US military. Now it’s used in an ironic way, to describe the shanty towns and a variety of illegal acts.
Lubnan Park (or Lebanon Park) in the centre of Basra is often seen as an example of this. Once built, some of the squatter houses are divided in two and sold to another family. “We cannot control this area,” acknowledged Sabah al-Zubaidi, an official from the Kut al-Hajjaj neighbourhood in which the park is located. “A year ago, we think there were around 250 families living in this area. We recounted them recently because of security concerns and now we find there are 450 families there. We believe that because of high demand for accommodation among the displaced, that the houses are being divided in two,” al-Zubaidi explains.
The local government department, formed to look into the squatter housing and try and resolve problems such as al-Muhsen’s, has its own problems.
There are 35 employees working there but according to department head, Makkie al-Tamimi, more are needed to adequately cover the area.
“The map of Basra is covered in squatter housing,” al-Tamimi complained, noting that they only had one bulldozer at their disposal with which to demolish the shanty towns. “There are even locations strategic to security that are now occupied by this kind of housing. In fact, some of these families have even occupied the naval premises, out of action since 2003. Some have even built their houses next to oil pipelines. A hospital development has been obstructed by squatter houses,” al-Tamimi explains.
Al-Tamimi says that he and other committee members are often threatened by the squatter families or those they’re allied with. “I was beaten up inside my own home,” al-Tamimi says. “And most of the committee members have experienced some kind of intimidation or threats.” That’s why, he concluded, it was so hard for the committee to get anything done.
Then again, others say that Basra’s new inhabitants cannot be blamed for taking matters into their own hands and building accommodation where they can. Basra has very high rent prices and no major housing projects have been completed for around 30 years. Various housing developments, started in the 1970s, were never completed because of the war waged against Iran by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein – now squatters and low income locals live in these half-built homes.
These days Fadel Muhsen is one of the squatters. Originally from Basra, Muhsen spent around two decades working in other parts of Iraq, for a phosphate company in the central Iraqi city Ramadi and also in the north in Kirkuk and elsewhere.
“When I came back here I was 50,” Muhsen explains, lighting up a cigarette; he’s smoking one of Iraq’s cheapest brands. “I have four daughters who are all at school and I’m the family’s only provider. Temporary employment contracts don’t come with many benefits and when I came back here I had to start from scratch. We lived with relatives for a while but eventually I was forced to buy one of the squatter houses so that my family had shelter.”
The price of land and housing, even in the squatter towns has risen dramatically due to the increased demand. A small shack with a tin roof costs around IQD10 million (US$7,000) in central Basra. “The prices are crazy,” Muhsen explains. “Rents are also high. I have to work day and night to keep my family in our own house.”