As the United States and the rest of the world try to decide what to do about the worsening crisis in Iraq, the United Nations and humanitarian NGOs are struggling to find a place to shelter the hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) the new fighting has created.
For the last week, the Iraqi government has been locked in combat against fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 00 for control of several cities and villages in Iraq. The result is that the United Nations on Wednesday upgraded Iraq’s crisis to a level 3 humanitarian disaster — the most severe rating it has. “Now we’re focused on delivering water, food and essential items,” Colin MacInnes, deputy head of UNICEF in Iraq, told the Washington Post. “Iraq already has a level 3 polio disaster,” MacInnes continued, and as Syria across the border is also in the midst of a level 3 disaster, “that means we have currently three level 3 disasters that are affecting the country.”
“At the present moment, we have a very serious confrontation and we have meaningful levels of internal displacement. We are not yet witnessing a massive refugee outflow and I think it will depend on whether this crisis can be addressed effectively in the near future or whether it will be a protracted conflict,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres at a press briefing on Tuesday. In the map below, the massive outflows of people from some of the cities that have seen the most fighting is clear. The red circles, indicating cities where people have fled, total up to over one million Iraqis who have abandoned their homes to escape the violence.
CREDIT: United Nations
“If it will be a protracted conflict, I think it will be inevitable to have again a meaningful outflow of refugees,” Guterres continued. The odds of the conflict becoming a protracted one increased over the last forty-eight hours, as the cities of Tal Afar and Iraq’s largest oil refinery fell to militants. Somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 people are said to have fled from Tal Afar, according to the European Union, as seen in the map below which also shows the many sites around the country where IDPs are gather. Many are trying to make their way into Kurdish provinces in Iraq, joining an estimated 300,000 of their fellow Iraqis, in the areas highlighted in light green in the main section of the European Union’s map.
“We understand that many of these displaced civilians are currently under the hot sun in the open, and have extremely limited access to food, water and shelter,” UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator Andrei Kazakov said. “It appears that many are planning to move north to Duhok governorate. But in the meantime, we must get them the help they urgently need.”
“Looking at the situation of the countries of the region, I mean Syria is obviously not a possible destination [for Iraqi refugees], Jordan is now having the enormous pressure of the Syrian refugees,” Guterres said. “So it’s difficult to see how the region can cope with another big refugee outflow.” The overburdening of the region can clearly be seen in the final map, below, charting the number of Syrian refugees taking shelter in Syria’s neighbors. Lebanon and Jordan in particular have been stretched to capacity, taking in 1.7 million Syrians between them.
CREDIT: U.N. High Commission for Refugees
Making matters worse, donors have yet to provide the funding necessary to take on this many challenges on the humanitarian front, with only 31 percent of the United Nations’ funding requests met. Last year, according to Dr. Richard J. Brennan, Director of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response at the WHO, was an “unprecedented” year in terms of humanitarian disasters, which saw three Level 3 disasters stretch the system to its breaking point. When asked earlier this year what could be done if another Level 3 disaster — as Iraq has now become — emerged, his one word answer says volumes about what to expect in the coming months: “Pray.”