Nearly two million Iraqis have become refugees in their own land in the past year, redrawing the ethnic and sectarian map of Baghdad and other cities, a report by the Iraqi Red Crescent said yesterday.
Last month saw the sharpest rise so far in the numbers of Iraqis forced to abandon their homes - 71.1%.
The forced migration raises questions about claims from the Bush administration that the civilian protection plan at the core of its war strategy is making Iraq safer for Iraqis.
Instead, data compiled by Red Crescent staff and volunteers in Iraq's 18 provinces suggests many Iraqis have failed to find real safety or sustainable living conditions after being forced to leave their homes. Some families have been uprooted twice or even three times in search of safety, affordable housing, functioning water and electricity, adequate schools, and jobs.
More than three-quarters of the displaced were women, and children under 12, reducing families to poverty, and compounding the sense of social dislocation.
"The men who were the breadwinners are no longer part of the family. They either fled or joined armed groups," the report said.
The vast internal exile began after the bombing of Shia shrines at Samara in February 2006 ignited Iraq's sectarian war.
Thousands of Shias fled Sunni majority neighbourhoods and headed for the south, where they are in the majority. Sunnis fled Shia enclaves for the north and west of the country. Christians also left their homes in Sunni areas for Kurdistan. Some two million Iraqis left the country.
Now a further wave of migration is under way as Iraqis discover they can not survive in their original havens. Unlike the earlier flights, the current movements are not easily categorised by ethnicity. "Our understanding is that people are just moving to where they feel safer," said Tim Irwin, a spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for refugees in Washington.
Although Baghdad is divided largely on ethnic lines by the Tigris, with Sunnis on the west bank and Shias on the east, some Iraqis are seeking safety in mixed and more secular neighbourhoods which have a better level of services.
"It was fair to say at the beginning of that movement that it was ethnically based and religious based," Mr Irwin said. "People were moving to areas where their ethnicity was in the majority. But with these secondary movements, these third movements, people are continuing to look for safety and security and that may be in homogeneous areas, or it may be in more mixed areas."
The data from the Iraqi Red Crescent suggests that violence followed many families to their new neighbourhoods, forcing a second flight. In other cases families were forced to move on from shelters in schools or government buildings because they were being shelled.
Some families were made to feel unwelcome in their place of refugee. The local authorities in Najaf and Kerbala, for example, have refused to take in migrants who were not born there. Others moved on because they were becoming a burden to relations who had taken them in.
Still others left because there were no schools for their children. "Schools witnessed a significant increase in the number of students in each classroom. Many schools are operating two shifts to accommodate the growing number of students," the report said.
The constant movement and a lack of amenities have taken a heavy toll on the fabric of Iraqi society, the report warned.
"Some teenagers who lost loved ones joined the armed groups and started taking revenge on innocent people from different ethnic groups. Rape, armed gangs, theft, drug addiction was commonplace," it said. "The overall picture is that of a human tragedy unprecedented in Iraq's history."
© 2007 The Guardian