While the Iraqi mafia steadily invested in the trash business in, patients and children in particular keep flooding hospitals. Waste trafficking generates a lot of money in Iraq through a shady partnership between governmental agencies and unscrupulous private operators. Meanwhile, regulation organizations remain silent. In Al-Rasheed camp, the population is surviving by making a living by collecting waste out of trash piles that the municipality buys back for 10 000 Iraqi dinars (less than seven US dollars) per day.
In Iraq, underage workers is not unheard of. It is even commonplace. What is new in this matter is the exploitation of children in a truly dirty business. For a salary even more miserable than their adult counterparts, they roam Iraq’s public scrap yards in search of their subsistence. These open air pollution and disease clusters provide many minors with their daily bread at the expense of their health, their education while barring them from enjoying their childhood as they should. With no alternatives, these children are the most exposed to dangers because of the government’s total negligence on the matter and of the apparent exploitation of their family’s deprivation by unscrupulous actors.
Like many others their age, Meriem and three of her sisters left their childhood too early in order to precipitate into adulthood. Poverty, ignorance and basic needs weighed highly on these vulnerable children, forcing them to take on high responsibilities and the burden of their subsistence. Meriem didn’t know what work meant or what collecting waste really entitles. She didn’t know that money could be found in those mountains of smelly trash. Her family led her to this new world.
In Al-Rasheed’s landfill site, East of Baghdad, ragmen live among ills of trash divided in two camps. Some of them complain that these piles of waste are destroying their lives while they consider them as the first source of diseases for them. Others only see in it a way to make a living. Those who benefit the most from this trade are the « waste traders », who enjoy the collaboration of the government in their activities.
Waste and child labor
Al-Rasheed camp’s families recruit their own children to collect waste. This landfill is not the only one where this trade happens. Other sites such as the Diyala bridge one, North of the capital, faces similar types of informal économy. According to the spokesperson of the Iraqi ministry of Planification, Mr. Abdul-Zahra Al-Hindawi, the exploitation of underaged workers remains a marginal issue: « the percentage of children workers in Iraq does not reach 1.6% as of our 2020 statistics, while this number is increasing in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq », he claimed in his interview to The Red Line.
Despite this official statement, the United Nations organization has very different statistics on the matter and the situation is probably much more grim. These last years, UNICEF conducted several surveys in the country about child labor, following up on more than 10 000 cases of the underaged workers victim of forced labour. According to the US labor department statistics, about 5.3% of Iraqi children have an economic activity.
According to Ali Abdul Karim Al-Bayati, a member of the Iraqi Commission of Human Rights in Iraq, the business of corruption is a well organized sector: « Because of corruption, successive governments do not cooperate in a serious manner in order to solve all the problems revolving around the matter of child labour », he explained.
The mafia-like business of waste trafficking is generally organized by the waste collection coordinator of Baghdad municipality. « Al-Rasheed and Diyala bridge ragmen generally sell their harvest to the municipality’s employees, not making more than 10 US dollars a day » described Abu Maryam, (the pseudonym of an inhabitant of Al-Rasheed camp) to The Red Line. «Poverty pushed us to work in the waste business. We have no other way of subsistence », he regretted.
A slow death and a sky filled with smell
Environmental activist Muhammad Al-Anbaki explained to The Red Line that the burning of waste is an ecologic catastrophe in Iraq. «The incineration of piles of rubbish in Baghdad’s landfills regularly darkens the sky of the city, not to mention an unbearable smell produced by the smoke. Baghdad endures these fires several times in a month, which affects the whole capital. On those occasions, Baghdadis wake up in a foul atmosphere and a dark sky.
The Diyala bridge also suffers from an environmental pollution related to the Tammuz reactor, a nuclear power plant that was bombed in June 1981 by Israel. « The consequences of the environmental pollution stemming from the reactor’s destruction are also affecting the health of the inhabitants of the area. », Mr. Al-Anbaki claimed.
Between 1991 and 2003, the number of cancer patients in Iraq reached 131 072, a number that significantly rose after the US-led coalition invasion of 2003. Between 2004 and 2018, the number of patients affected by cancer rose to 287 254, according to internal Health Ministry reports that were shared under conditions of anonymity.
Many consider that the declared number of cancer victims in Iraq is way underrated. According to a report by the media Daraj, no less than 500 people die because of cancer complications related to the nuclear waste emanating from the Tammuz reactor alone.
Every time a garbage fire occurs in the Al-Rasheed camp, hundreds of cases of asphyxia and intoxication are reported in its surroundings. « About 200 people get rushed to the hospitals each time garbage mounts get incinerated in the landfill. The fire is set about four to five times each month », explained environmental expert Abdul Razzaq Al-Shammari in an interview to The Red Line. Mr Al-Shammari accused the field security forces of cooperating with waste traders, declaring that they condone illegal activities in the landfill. « They allow some unaffiliated waste collectors to enter the site and to dump their load ».
It is estimated that air pollution in both cities and rural areas caused some 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016, According to the World Health Organization report.
In an interview he gave to The Red Line, deputy director of Karrada’s municipality (a neighborhood in Baghdad), Mr. Jassim Muhammad Yahya shared Mr. Al-Shammari, declaring that « [w]aste trucks entering the camps belong to companies that have no relation with Baghdad’s municipality, and they enter the landfill with the knowledge of the Ministry of Interior’s agents that are supposed to monitor the access to the site. ».
The Ministry of Interior attempted to discard all responsibility of its agents on the matter of complicity with the waste trafficking in Al-Rasheed. « The deployment of police cars aims at protecting the landfill site », the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, Mr. Khaled Al-Muhanna told The Red Line.
Cancer hospitals receive about twelve thousand patients every year. While the causes of these diseases may be diverse, some clusters appear to hold higher rates of cancer than others, such as the Diyala bridge area, the Tammuz reactor site or the Al-Rasheed camp. The absence of vegetation cover in Iraq as well as the waste treatment dysfunctionalities by institutions and local industries which are not subjected to any real controls by the authorities, has an impact on the entire population.
Poor management of the waste issue in Iraq by successive governments since 2003 are aggravated by an endemic rate of corruption. This situation threatens the sustainability of a healthy environment and the guarantee that children are prevented from wasting their childhood with underaged labor. Still, these objectives should remain the sole priority and duty of State officials, as the Iraqi constitution stipulates. Despite the instability that characterizes the successive governments, it remains necessary to involve Non-State, humanitarian and environmental actors in the process of sensitization of the people and governmental actors on the danger faced by Iraq regarding environmental hazards. A degraded environment can only increase the risks on the population’s health and lead to a full scale sanitary catastrophe.