In March 2018, an international conference was held in Kuwait to discuss the reconstruction of Iraq. After decades of conflict, economic crisis, and political turmoil, the challenge at hand proved daunting.
An official assessment carried out by the World Bank and Iraqi government, the Iraq Damage and Needs Assessment documented losses and requirements for building a stable and peaceful Iraq and recommended 157 construction projects be carried out over ten years at a cost of 65 billion JOD. Buoyed by optimism following the military defeat of the Islamic State and aware of Iraq’s strategic and economic significance, international investors pledged billions of dollars in credit, aid, and investment projects.
Yet a year and a half later, much of this earmarked funding has failed to materialise.
Business leaders have proved especially reluctant to follow through on investment promises- doing business in Iraq carries a range of political and security risks, and rampant corruption in the country means the chances of generating sustainable returns is low.
Poverty and unemployment in the country remain high; Iraqi cities are expanding exponentially without adequate planning or investment, a housing deficit of 2 million homes is estimated by the World Bank and at least 1.5 million people are internally displaced.
a housing deficit of 2 million homes is estimated by the World Bank and at least 1.5 million people are internally displaced
Yet aside from the challenges engendered by the country’s depleted national coffers, Iraqis face many obstacles in gaining access to government services where they do exist. Iraq faces an acute ‘identity crisis’ which the central government appears unwilling to resolve.
According to a forthcoming joint study by the Norwegian and Danish Refugee Councils and the International Rescue Committee entitled ‘Paperless People of Post-Conflict Iraq’, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including children are denied access to basic social services due to a lack of valid government documentation.
The report estimates that at least 80,000 Iraqi households are missing important forms of civil documentation. Without documentation, Iraqis are unable to move around the country, secure employment, claim welfare benefits or register their children for birth certificates. Without parental documentation, children are unable to be enrolled in Iraqi schools.
Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as 45,000 children in displacement camps lack Iraqi issued birth certificates and legal identity documents and warns that ‘children without these documents are at high risk of being sentenced to a life on the margins of Iraqi society’.
The reasons for a lack of documentation among Iraqis are multifarious. Many lost documents whilst fleeing the Islamic State, which overran the provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and parts of Saladin in 2014.
Others had their identity documents confiscated by the group itself which issued alternative documents of its own, while those living under Islamic State control often had documents seized by Iraqi forces as they conducted counteroffensives to reclaim lost territory.
Families whose children were born in Islamic State run hospitals have found it almost impossible to obtain official birth certificates. Procuring such documents often involves providing proof of identity for both parents. In the case of a deceased or missing parent, official certificates must be provided. This has proved a significant problem - the International Committee of the Red Cross has named Iraq as the country with the highest number of missing persons in the world.
the International Committee of the Red Cross has named Iraq as the country with the highest number of missing persons in the world
Civil directorate offices, responsible for issuing documents are strained and under resourced. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, obtaining or renewing documentation can take up to 6 months. Iraq lacks a centralised, digitised civil registry and paper documents remain the norm. Most importantly, in order to obtain documentation, Iraqis require security clearance, a process which involves running names against a database of those suspected of having links to the Islamic State.
It is thought that around 250,000 people had some affiliation with the group. Many who lived in Islamic State controlled territory fear failing security clearance checks and the risk of arrest and punishment. Family members fear social stigma and marginalisation that may result from the uncovering of links with the militant group. The head of the UNHCR in Iraq has argued that obtaining civil documentation is an ‘important stepping-stone on the road to recovery’, yet administrative headaches and fears of social marginalisation derail this process for many in post-conflict Iraq.
The head of the UNHCR in Iraq has argued that obtaining civil documentation is an ‘important stepping-stone on the road to recovery’, yet administrative headaches and fears of social marginalisation derail this process for many in post-conflict Iraq.
The denial of service provision for those lacking documentation does not augur well for the future of the much-troubled country. In the first instance, gaps in service provision and popular grievances at discriminatory state policies provide openings for the re-emergence of extremist groups.
Mohamed al-Habousi, Iraq’s parliamentary speaker told journalists in February, ‘liberating areas from ISIS does not mean that we have defeated extremism’. The battle for military supremacy must be complemented with an extension of state support and a rebuilding of trust in government and its institutions.
Extremist groups have learnt that violence and intimidation alone are insufficient to secure the support of local populations. A recent report by Critical Threats, a conflict monitor, notes that ‘the Salafi-jihadi movement seeks to build local ties by meeting those basic needs of a community that a central, regional or local government is failing to provide, actively depriving the community of, or attacking’.
Numerous militant groups including Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and more recently, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have reaped the benefits of this form of ‘social jihad’.
A recent report by Critical Threats, a conflict monitor, notes that ‘the Salafi-jihadi movement seeks to build local ties by meeting those basic needs of a community that a central, regional or local government is failing to provide, actively depriving the community of, or attacking’.
Further, though adults are often more willing to accept the administrative difficulties that emerge from national reconstruction efforts, policies that deprive children of access to resources are likely to have much deeper and longer lasting implications.
Education is key to dual processes of national reconciliation and economic reconstruction so central to rebuilding Iraq. Iraq once boasted one of the best education systems in its region, but decades of conflict and underinvestment in education have curtailed access to quality instruction.
Many children have missed years of education through war and Islamic state occupation. Others have dropped out of school to provide for their families. UNICEF estimates that close to 3.2 million school aged children are out of school in the country.
Youth illiteracy has climbed to 15% among young men and 20% among young women. Excluding tens of thousands of vulnerable children from educational opportunities is set to only worsen Iraq’s crisis. Those children most at risk of missing out on government provided schooling are often those who lived in Islamic State controlled territories, many of whom received educational instruction in the notorious schools established by the group.
Youth illiteracy has climbed to 15% among young men and 20% among young women.
Analysts of Islamic State’s educational provision note the tendency of instruction to glorify martyrdom, normalise violence, and vilify minority populations and Shi’a Iraqis. Reintegrating children exposed to this form of indoctrination is urgently important to prevent the conflicts of this generation carrying on into the next.
As the dust settles on many decades of conflict and instability in Iraq, the provision of civil documentation may appear a low priority compared to the mammoth tasks of rebuilding dilapidated infrastructure, providing accommodation for the millions still displaced, and securing internal security. Yet solving Iraq’s identity crisis is the key to ensuring a prosperous and peaceful future.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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