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There's No Going Home For Iraqi Squatters

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Nadia Karim Hassan says she stayed in her Baghdad neighborhood as long as she could, but by the height of the sectarian war in 2007, too many fellow Shiites were getting killed, and she had to leave the area and move into an abandoned building.

As American troops pull out of Iraq, one of the most striking consequences of the war remains unresolved today: the issue of people who were forced out of their homes and still can't go back. Relief organizations estimate there are some 2 million displaced people inside Iraq.

Hassan has a lawyer who works pro bono for the International Rescue Committee, where it's policy not to reveal the names of local staff.

The lawyer is basically trying to prove that Hassan exists. Because Hassan lives as a squatter, she has no documents — no proof of residence, no marriage contract. The list goes on and on.

It will take about a month to get just one of these documents, Hassan's lawyer says.

Without them, Hassan's son, Akram, can't go to school or to a government hospital.

Fear Remains

Hassan is one of 500,000 people who live as squatters in Iraq.

Laura Jacoby is the Iraq director for the International Rescue Committee. She says most squatters live in makeshift camps, hundreds of which are in plain sight, scattered around the capital, Baghdad.

"It could be ... a few families living in an old building. It could be hundreds of families that are starting to build makeshift homes, some of them in brick," Jacoby says. "But in the worst ... there's no running water, there's no septic sewer, there's no electricity."

Until recently, the way the Iraqi government dealt with squatters was to tell them to go back home. The government even gave cash incentives to so-called returnees.

But people like Hassan are too afraid to go back to their original homes. For them, the threat of being targeted is still very real.

Jacoby says the government's new approach — called the Baghdad Initiative — is to find new housing for some of the people who can't go back home. The rest of the people would be able to stay where they are now, build new houses, get registered and get their documents in order.

The second part of the plan is proving to be the most difficult.

Funding Solutions

At a squatter camp near the Baghdad airport, property values are going up. The land is covered in handmade houses and garbage, but the land is valuable. The government won't let the people stay because the land is worth so much.

It's no surprise that the problem comes down to money.

While Iraqi officials are more keen to try and solve the problem these days, they're not so keen to fund it. Aid workers here say that's because Iraqis believe America caused the problem by invading this country — and it's America that should solve the problem.

Kelly Clements is a deputy assistant secretary of state for the U.S. government, specializing in refugees and displaced people. She says the U.S. will continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year in Iraq.

Still, Clements says, it's the Iraqis who have to take the lead.

"That is probably our number one priority," she says. "So I keep mentioning the government of Iraq being in front, and that's where we want them to remain, and to remain very engaged."

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