23 Jul 2014

Overcoming Challenges for an Inclusive Humanitarian Response in Iraq

The takeover by armed militants of Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul and a string of other cities throughout June and July exceeded even the ‘worst case’ scenarios of international aid agencies and Government authorities to the current crisis. Contingency plans had talked about the potentiality for violence to spread to other areas of Iraq, following the militant occupation of Fallujah and Ramadi and the absence of a political compromise. However few had foreseen that the political void, which continues to exist following the parliamentary elections and failed efforts at forming a new Government, could be pounced upon so rapidly by armed militant groups. Despite this, aid agencies immediately scaled up their operations to respond to the humanitarian needs of affected populations.

Since the start of June, more than 650,000 people have been displaced as a result of the violent conflict. When added to the approximated 550,000 people that were uprooted due to the fighting in Anbar, the collective internally displaced population in Iraq has more than doubled since January and now totals more than 2.3 million individuals. In addition to the high fluidity in movement of affected populations and the sheer speed with which the conflict unreeled, aid agencies are now also in the difficult position of contending with a plethora of equally daunting challenges.

Perhaps the most prominent of these challenges is the critical security situation, which has forced staff from both UN agencies and NGOs to relocate to the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Erbil has now evolved into the hub for the collective humanitarian response. More than 500,000 internally displaced people from varying ethnicities flocked towards the northern Kurdish provinces in search of shelter and sanctuary from the violence. However the tightening of conditions for entry has meant that increasing numbers of these people have recently been turned away from Peshmerga controlled border checkpoints. Consequently, aid agencies are intensifying efforts to reach out to affected populations from behind the Kurdish safe haven of Erbil. This is despite sizeable barriers in terms of access and subsequent gaps in vital needs assessments.

Humanitarian aid continues to be delivered to the most easily accessible regions of bordering Ninewa province such as Tel Kaif, Hamdaniya, Al-Shikhan and Khanakeen in Diyala. However delivery of aid to more limited access areas such as Tel Afar, southern areas of Ninewa, and the majority of Salaheddin and Kirkuk, has been difficult to sustain with limited coverage. Further afield, it is vital to remember that around 71,000 displaced families (equating to approximately 420,000 individuals) are still located inside Anbar province. Numerous field reports released by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) between January and May of this year highlighted a worrying breakdown in the provision of public services and healthcare inside areas of Anbar province and huge gaps in the basic needs of affected local populations. Given that a huge slice of the international effort has now been redirected towards Iraq’s northern provinces, one can only view with pessimism the current situation of people that continue to be trapped inside Fallujah and other areas of Anbar.

Pressure is now growing for there to be a shift in focus back to the central and southern areas Iraq, which continue to be overshadowed by ongoing needs that are driving the humanitarian response in the northern provinces. Such a refocus would surely be justified given that an estimated 55 percent of people uprooted in this year’s conflict are located in central and southern areas of the country. Most recently, there have been thousands of Shia Turkmen and Arabs transiting to Najaf, Karbala and other southern or central regions, including Baghdad, Babel, Wasit and Basra, as they attempt to distance themselves from the conflict. Trends such as this are expected to solidify over the coming weeks and months as displaced families that have relocated to the Kurdish region experience the stark realities of expensive living costs and cultural, religious and language barriers to their integration in local communities. This will raise once again the need to strengthen local capacities in central and southern provinces to provide an effective joint response. Restrictions on entry and residence to the Kurdish region will also force many IDPs to choose between life as an internal refugee or quietly returning to militant controlled areas, with significant risks to their safety.

Sooner or later, the humanitarian community will need to find ways expand their collective response strategy to improve its coverage of the central and southern provinces of Iraq. The northern Kurdish region is set to cement itself as the humanitarian center for the collective response to the displacement crisis but this should not prevent the right time and space being given to addressing the pressing needs in other areas of Iraq, especially those of the forgotten IDPs of Anbar province. The recent gift from Saudi Arabia to the UN of 500 million USD presents itself as a double-edged sword of capacity versus responsibility. Resources will trickle through to aid agencies that will enable them to step up their activities. However the decision upon how and where to divert these funds must be dictated by the humanitarian needs on the ground rather than the barriers that must be addressed in meeting them.

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