The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Iraq is more than a crisis of food and shelter, it is a “crisis of spirit” that requires urgent action from the international community, the Deputy United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq said today.
Briefing reporters in New York via video-link from Erbil, Kevin Kennedy said that currently there are some 1.8 million people displaced in the country, mostly in Kurdistan and Anbar Province.
Over 860,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have arrived from Anbar, Mosul and Sinjar in the last several months as the situation has deteriorated in all those regions, he noted.
In August alone, 650,000 people arrived in Kurdistan seeking shelter, security and safety. Many of them have been staying with friends and relatives. Most of the refugees arriving now are seeking shelter in schools. This has caused the start of the school year to be delayed for months, Mr. Kennedy said, adding that it is uncertain when schools will reopen.
The IDPs are also dispersed, with about 400,000 of them in Anbar Province, which is not controlled by Iraqi Government forces. On top of that, Iraq is also hosting some 220,000 Syrian refugees and another one million people displaced since the start of the 2003 war.
“The people who are here came here to seek refuge. They are very traumatized having seen things they did not want to see,” said Mr. Kennedy, recalling a recent visit to Tikrit, where he met an elderly man who said that he could not account for his 41 family members.
Challenges persist and continue to grow, Mr. Kennedy said, outlining three main challenges facing relief agencies on the ground. The first challenge is access. It is very difficult to reach the close to half a million people in need of support in Anbar Province.
The second big challenge is shelter, he continued. There are 800,000 IDPs in the Kurdistan region, and about 390,000 are estimated to be in need of shelter and currently living in schools, under bridges or out in the open, in very bad conditions. Camps are being built and will accommodate 220,000 which will leave a shelter gap for about 170,000 people.
“We still have a gap which will be significant and must be closed in a few weeks,” he said, noting that winter is fast approaching.
The third main concern is the upcoming winter, when temperatures can get down to negative 16 degrees Celsius. “There’s rain, snow and wind, and our fear is that unless we can provide the shelter, this massive humanitarian emergency will turn into a deadly, life threatening situation for many,” said Mr. Kennedy.
Last week, the Government and the UN agreed on a joint plan to provide refugees with shelter, food, and sanitation in the coming weeks.
He commended the “generosity, hospitality and humanity” of the people in different areas who have taken in the displaced. At the same time, he expressed concern about how long host communities could continue to take in refugees before they themselves became overwhelmed.
UN agencies and partners are continuing with their efforts on the ground, distributing food, medicines and building camps. The World Food Programme (WPF) is feeding 1 million people every month. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is taking care of building shelters, while the World Health Organization (WHO) is providing medicine and other supplies.
Mr. Kennedy said that what is needed is a massive effort with a sustained sense of urgency, noting that while the security situation in Iraq and the region has captured global attention, the humanitarian situation deserves equal attention.