By Saleem al-Wazzan.
The number of squatters in Basra is growing by the day and tens of thousands live in local shanty towns. The settlements are impeding development projects like hospitals and sewage but politicians are allegedly protecting squatters’ rights in return for votes.
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.