Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Unemployment Fuels Crime Wave

Growing criminality takes the shine off improved living standards.
By Falah Hassan

A lot of paradoxes have popped up in Iraq following the demise of the Saddam Hussein regime. One of them is the dangerous increase in criminal violence that’s accompanied a much-improved standard of living for most people.

Government employees have perhaps benefited most from the regime change. Their incomes have rocketed compared to the Saddam period - although during this time most civil servants supplemented their meagre earnings with part-time work in the private sector work.

The minimum pension paid to retired government workers has jumped from around one US dollar (3,000 Iraqi dinars) to 75 dollars a month.

The average salary for a municipal employee used to be about one dollar a month for those who completed 20 years of service. Now that figure has leapt 100 times.

The same sort of increases have occurred in the private sector, where a builder’s salary has gone up three times to around nine dollars day.

But the rise in incomes has unfortunately been accompanied by an increase in crime and violence in the Iraqi street – which is somewhat ironic as many people thought improved standards of living would lead to a reduction in criminality.

Analysts say this has its roots in the former regime’s decision to release hundreds of criminals just before it fell.

Many of these convicts looted banks, making off with millions of dollars, and seized government equipment and vehicles.

The gangs have recruited members from the ranks of the jobless. A recent survey conducted by the labour and planning ministries showed that the unemployment rate – excluding Kurdistan – was around 28 per cent.

Gangs of criminals find rich pickings in the Bab al-Sharki and al-Batween districts of central Baghdad, controlling the markets there and even imposing their own prices, shop-owners say.

Municipal sources say thieves have stolen most of the sewer-cleaning vehicles, smuggling them abroad or simply taking them apart and selling them on the pavement.

Disputes between gangs have often broken out, with rival groups kidnapping members of each other’s families and demanding ransoms.

These abductions have now developed into organised operations, with gangs seizing members of rich families and then asking for ransoms anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 dollars.

Kidnappings take place outside Baghdad too, with the town of Latifiya, south of the capital, becoming a particular black spot.

Many of these villains have spent their money on gambling, and made even more - enabling them to buy houses in high-class districts of Baghdad, which has led to big increases in property prices in these areas and elsewhere.

In some neighbourhoods, such as the Baghdad district of Sadr city, the price for a 150 square metre house has nearly tripled, to around 50 million dinars.

In the al-Jadeda district, which is little better than Sadr city, prices for a 200 sq m home has jumped four-fold to 100 million dinars.

With unemployment seen as the cause of much of the criminality, questions are being raised over the whether the government has any plan to tackle the scourge.

The ministry of labour recently declared that it’s providing income support for more than 300,000 families and poor widows.

The ministry also said it was seeking to open around 20 centres across the country to train members of the 700,000 or so jobless families, and help them find public sector jobs.

The ministry of planning, meanwhile, believes that foreign investment in Iraq could play an important role in solving the unemployment problem - provided that investors actually employ Iraqis and do not import foreign labour.

Falah Hassan is a correspondent for Al Hurra TV in Baghdad.

More IWPR's Global Voices