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Shantytowns springing up in Iraq

Story Highlights

• Iraqis setting up shantytowns in lieu of safe housing anywhere else
• UNHCR reports 2.2 million Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries
• 2 million more are displaced internally, criss-crossing Iraq seeking refuge
• Displacement crisis most significant in Middle East since 1948 creation of Israel
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(CNN) -- Iraqis fleeing their homes because of sectarian warfare are starting to set up their own makeshift camps inside the country, a development reflecting the dire scope of the country's population displacement problem.

Andrew Harper, head of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' Iraq support unit in Geneva, said that internally displaced people are setting up shantytowns because they haven't been able to find safe harbor with their relatives or friends and have been kicked out of public squares and government buildings in cities and towns.

"We're finally starting to see the creation of camps inside Iraq," said Harper, who spoke and provided detail to CNN via e-mail.

Iraq's displacement crisis is the most significant in the Middle East since the changes in population that occurred during the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

There are believed to be 2.2 million Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries and 2 million displaced internally, according to the UNHCR.

Internally displaced persons -- or IDPs, as officials refer to people who leave their homes but don't leave the country -- have been criss-crossing Iraq seeking refuge, a process that was accelerated after Al-Askariya Mosque, a Shiite shrine, was bombed in Samarra last year. That sparked a vicious wave of sectarian violence.

The presence of the newcomers here and there eventually began to strain resources in many locations and many of the 18 provinces aren't welcoming internally displaced people.

Harper cited strains on services such as health care, food and water access.

He said there now are tens of makeshift sites, including Najaf in the south, where there is much desert terrain, Baghdad, and Nineva province in the north. In Nineva, in fact, it is estimated that 7 percent of the total number of IDPs are in makeshift camps.

He said Kurdish region authorities "are planning to establish camps but we are resistant to that idea."

Harper said it is believed that just over 1 percent of the IDPs in Iraq are in "ad hoc camps," but "it is inevitable that we will see more and more being established and we have to find ways of providing effective humanitarian situation in an extremely insecure environment."

Most of the camps are not huge -- they range from a few to a couple hundred families.

"What we do know is that Iraqis detest living in camps and the fact that we are now seeing these types of camps being established is a very bad sign that other options are no longer available."

What the camps are like

Harper passed along details and photos about one of the makeshift camps in Najaf province called Al-Manathera, which a UNHCR team visited in May:

There were more than 2,000 people in what is a collection of tents, with 60 percent of them women and 30 percent children.

They lacked proper water access and the heat makes potable water too hot and undrinkable. There was no medical care, and many of the children suffer from typhoid, diarrhea and skin rash.

The people had to cope with snakes, scorpions and mosquitoes. They had no change of clothes, and there were no toilets.

The UNHCR said the camp needs 50 tents, 50 water tanks, urgent medical care, sterilizers, insecticides, mattresses, blankets and "healthy, real toilets." "UNHCR will expand the delivery of emergency non-food items and we are aiming to distribute tents, water containers, blankets and kitchen sets to another 100,000 displaced before the end of the year. But the fundamental problem is security," Harper said.

Another group, the International Organization for Migration, said Friday it has launched an $85 million appeal for internally displaced Iraqis and those enduring food shortages.

"If people cannot get help with shelter, food, water, health care or even ways of earning a living to pay for these things because everyone is in a desperate struggle to survive, people will feel they have no choice but to flee Iraq. The situation cannot continue like this. We can and must help them," says Rafiq Tschannen, IOM's chief of mission in Iraq.

UNHCR's Harper stressed that humanitarian response to the situation "has been largely neglected with regard to funding." And the "fundamental problem" to providing help to the displaced is the poor security situation.

"It is very difficult for agencies such as UNHCR and its partners to access and provide assistance. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society and regional authorities are doing a courageous job in many areas and we need to do as much as possible to support these locally based programs," Harper said.

CNN's Joe Sterling contributed to this report


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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