High rents, scarce jobs plague Iraq's displaced

BAGHDAD, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Scarce jobs and spiralling rents have made life even harder for displaced Iraqis and forced some women into prostitution, a migration watchdog has found.

The problem has been made worse by the threat this month of a Turkish military incursion, which has swelled the numbers of Iraqis abandoning their homes in the north of the country.

About 160,000 Iraqis have fled to three northern provinces since 2006, seeking shelter from sectarian violence, military operations and crime in other areas of Iraq, the International Organization for Migration's (IOM) Iraq mission said in a report seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

The tide of displaced people has pushed up rents in northern cities like Arbil, and some have been evicted, said Dana Graber, an Iraqi displacement specialist with the IOM.

IOM monitors have also received reports of Iraqi women inside and outside Iraq being forced into prostitution, sometimes by family members, Graber said.

"It's being seen countrywide, but there are reports of it in other places where Iraqis have fled, such as Syria," she said.

Violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 has claimed the life of many Iraqi families' chief breadwinner, according to charity group Oxfam. In a report earlier this year, Oxfam said that 43 percent of Iraqis now live in "absolute poverty," scraping by on less than $1 a day.

The numbers of internally displaced Iraqis, meanwhile, climbed steadily in 2006 and 2007, reaching 2.3 million at the end of September, the Iraqi Red Crescent said in a new report.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office has estimated northern Iraq is home to 800,000 displaced Iraqis.

Aid workers say at least 4.2 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. About 2 million have fled abroad, most to Syria and Jordan.

Displaced families lack health care and are unable to send their children to school, the Iraqi Red Crescent said, while some have taken shelter in abandoned public buildings without proper water, electricity or sanitation.

"Most (internally displaced) families are poor with very limited income, which makes it impossible to meet the basic needs ... These families are increasingly becoming dependant on humanitarian aid," the Iraqi Red Crescent said.

It found that about 65 percent of internally displaced Iraqis are now children under 12 years old.

Tension in northern Iraq has intensified in recent weeks as Turkey threatens to send troops into northern Iraq to crush attacks by Kurdish militants.

Graber said only a small number of Iraqi families have so far abandoned their homes in border areas due to recent shelling by Turkey.

She said about 500 families remain displaced after shelling by Iran, but thousands more could be driven out of their homes if Ankara sends troops across the border.

The IOM also noted that some displaced Iraqis, apparently encouraged by a recent ebb in violence in and around Baghdad, are slowly returning home. About 3,200 families have registered with the government after returning to their homes this year.

While still a relatively small number, "it might suggest a trend for the future if more stability is brought to Baghdad", Graber said.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul