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How can Iraq help 3.5 million citizens living in urban slums?

The government and parliament in Iraq are working to address the slum housing crisis, facing obstacles and wide social and political opposition.
Iraq slum

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi parliament this month is discussing a bill to find solutions to its expanding slum areas. However, several obstacles could hinder this bill from being passed into law amid an ongoing social and political crisis.

Iraq has more than 5,000 slum areas, containing more than half a million housing units, inhabited by approximately 3.5 million people. Most of these slum areas were established with the emergence of the current political regime in 2003.

The search for a solution started in 2014, member of parliament Alia Nassif told Al-Monitor, with a plan to lease the land of informal settlements to their impoverished residents for a small fee. The slum areas lack public services such as paved streets, schools, water, electricity, and other basic needs, she said, and residents “are unable to register their children or complete certain formalities at government institutions.” 

Iraq's current housing crisis has driven the price of a square meter in commercial centers in Baghdad up to $20,000, one real estate broker told Euronews, against $600 in the outskirts of cities.

Nassif indicated that parliament will amend the 2014 bill and is seeking to help the dwellers acquire the lands where they are living. But if a plot of land was initially classified as industrial or commercial, it cannot be acquired. 

The Iraqi government had proposed a fund to address the problem, to be financed by the reduced rents paid by the residents of these slums, the general budget and loans. The fund would secure basic services in these neighborhoods, such as roads, sewage, water, schools, police stations, healthcare and other services. 

Spokesman for the Ministry of Planning Abdul-Zahra Al-Hindawi told Al-Monitor, “Slums are still being built in Iraq, and this must be stopped. In 2010, Iraq had around 2,000 slum area. This number rose to 4,000 slums in 2016, but now there are more than 5,000 slums.”

He noted that the Baghdad alone has more than 1,022 informal settlement areas, followed by Basra with 700. Hindawi explained that the bill for solving this problem, drafted in cooperation with the United Nations, provides for building quick and low-cost accommodation units in cooperation with Chinese companies, as well as renting homes in these areas for a period of 25 years through contracts that will eventually lead to their ownership. 

Meanwhile, civil servants remain unable to eliminate these slum areas. Karbala’s mayor, Abeer Al-Khafaji, was killed by a slum dweller while supervising a municipal campaign accompanied by security forces to remove informal settlements.

A small part of the slums were established by the poor population. But most were set up by Shiite militia leaders who seized the lands of the Ministry of Finance and other ministries, and sold them for sums ranging between $5,000 and $200,000. Also, some agricultural land owners razed their orchards due to water scarcity and sold them to citizens who built dwellings on them.

“The bill in its current wording is unjust to slum-dwellers," the deputy chairman of the parliamentary services committee, Adnan al-Juhaishi, told Al-Monitor. "We will meet with the heads of provinces and municipalities to reach a draft that best suits the citizens. The bill will present new solutions.” He did not elaborate on the latter.

It will likely take more than a year to pass the law. After amending this bill, the government could challenge it before the Federal Court, under the pretext that parliament went against the initial draft presented by the government. 

Economist Ammar al-Rubaie told Al-Monitor that he believes the law will solve the crisis. “Slum dwellers will pay the fees for the services they will receive in monthly installments or will pay the full amount, on condition that the areas do not affect the cities' urban planning.” 

He added, “Most of the slums consist of lands seized by militias and sold to citizens for very large sums. Today citizens buy and sell dwellings in the slums at more than $20,000.”

Rubaie lashed out at some politicians who also seized lands and established slums in them in the central Jadriya and al-Karada areas. “Dwellings in these areas are sold at more than $20,000,” he said. 

“Most of the slums should be removed, and vertical housing units should be allocated to their dwellers against symbolic amounts. These lands must be returned to the state in order to restore the cities’ urban planning. The expansion of slum areas will have dire consequences for the Iraqi people. Most children in slum areas do not have access to education amid lack of schools or financial capacities,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi governments seem unable to solve the problem, which is not only social and economic but also political.

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