BASRA, Iraq: From his small home nestled alongside train tracks in the southern Iraqi province of Basra, Sultan Nayef looks out at plumes of smoke billowing across an expanse of oil fields.
Like thousands of others, the unemployed 25-year-old moved to oil-rich Basra in the hope of finding work in the energy industry, Iraq’s primary source of wealth.
Instead, he and many others like him live in cramped and chaotic shanty towns in a province already suffering from a lack of infrastructure.
Absent of any urban planning or public services, Basra’s informal settlements are an anarchic clutter of breeze-block homes and ad-hoc electricity wires.
“All we get from oil is pollution,” said Sultan who, along with his four brothers, still relies on his parents for living expenses.
A small stone wall is the only thing keeping cows and sheep grazing in a grassy field behind him from wandering into oil fields where burning gas flares emit thick black smoke.
Most of the young people arriving in Iraq’s only coastal oil province hoped to secure high-paying jobs with foreign companies.
“But most companies import their employees from abroad,” said Nayef, a resident of the Zoubeir district south of Basra city.
At least 18 percent of Iraqi youth are unemployed, with rates even higher among college graduates.
According to the UN, Iraq’s oil sector accounts for 65 percent of the country’s gross domestic product but only one percent of its labor force.
Even for those who work, buying a home is often only a dream.
“My husband is a civil servant, but with his salary we can’t even buy a centimeter of land,” said Umm Ahmed.
Even though they are against “the idea of squatting,” she and her family were forced to build a makeshift home on government land.
The municipality has already destroyed their home once.
“We had to completely rebuild it,” the 48-year-old said, her face framed by a long black veil.
Local authorities say the land belongs to the state, denouncing the illegal structures and the theft of water and electricity.
The last study on Basra’s informal settlements was completed in 2014, just a few months before the Daesh group swept across Iraq seizing nearly a third of the country.
At the time, there were more than 48,500 informal homes in the province, said Zahra Al-Jebari, head of urban planning at Basra’s provincial council.
Today “there are many more, but there is no figure,” she said.
Many internal refugees displaced by Daesh fled to Basra, untouched by the militant takeover, often finding homes in shanty towns.
Nearly 10 percent of Iraqis live in informal settlements, one fifth of them in Basra, according to the ministry of planning.
The only other province hit harder by illegal construction is Baghdad.
Basra authorities say they lose money every time a home is built illegally, as Baghdad bases provincial budgets on the number of officially registered residents.
Taxes in informal settlements are also left unpaid, said Jebari, adding the budget deficit was acutely felt in “allocations to education, health and other services.”
For Wissam Maher, it feels like authorities are “only interested in destroying our homes.”
“We live under power lines without any services,” said the 32-year-old metal worker.
“This area is huge and it doesn’t belong to anyone,” he said, pointing down a narrow sandy street lined with ramshackle houses and abandoned cars.