Iraq’s Turmoil Is Turning Into A Major Refugee Crisis

A militant with ISIS guards a makeshift checkpoint in Iraq CREDIT: AP PHOTO, FILE
A militant with ISIS guards a makeshift checkpoint in Iraq CREDIT: AP PHOTO, FILE

During a press conference Saturday, President Obama maintained that he would not send combat troops into Iraq, but called on countries to help refugees on the run from the Sunni Al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As the crisis worsens in Iraq, internal displacement is becoming a more and more serious problem, while neighboring countries are also facing questions of what to do with those seeking refuge over the border.

Just this week alone, the rapid advance of ISIL forces in several cities of Iraq has forced the internal displacement of about 195,000 refugees, including adherents of the religious Yazidi sect, Palestinians, and Turkmen living in Iraq — a move that has sent neighboring countries and international agencies scrambling to accommodate the refugee crisis within Iraq.

“We feel confident that we can prevent ISIL from going up a mountain and slaughtering the people who are there,” Obama said, referring to the Yazidis, the most recent refugees caught up in ISIL’s wrath. “But the next step will be complicated logistically. How do we give safe passage for people coming down from the mountain and where can we relocate them so that they are safe. That is what we have to do internationally.”

To meet the need of refugees, this week, Turkish officials began building up a camp to house 20,000 ethnic Turkmen in Iraq’s Dahuk province (about 50 miles north of Mosul). A Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) official confirmed that while the camp was predominantly set up for the Turkmen minority, it would remain open to other nationalities fleeing violence. The AFAD official told Reuters, “There is no preparation right now for building a camp or camps inside Turkey for those coming from Iraq. There is no such need. There is no refugee exodus from Iraq, as was the case in Syria.”

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said this week that it would increase aid for the 1.5 million refugees, noting that the stability of the Iraqi northern Kurdish province was “very important” since the region acts as a buffer zone for his country. Although Turkey sent thousands of tents and 200 trucks to Iraq, the country is also taking in some of these refugees. The Chicago Tribune noted that 150 Yazidis were placed in state-run facilities along Turkey’s Sirnak province and the city of Batman. Still, Turkey is already overwhelmed by about one million Syrian refugees — about 300,000 of whom live in state-run camps, and the half-million Iraqis displaced after the First Gulf War.

Overall, nearly 200,000 internally displaced people have fled away from major cities, like Qaraqosh, the largest Christian city captured by ISIL this week, with the greatest concentration of people fleeing towards the northern provinces of Dahuk, Erbil, and Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah, near Turkey. Between January and July, there were at least 1.2 million displaced refugees within Iraq. And in June, the United Nations upgraded Iraq’s crisis to a level 3 humanitarian disaster — the most severe rating it has.

In its attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate stretching from Syria to Iraq, ISIL has targeted, forcibly converted, or killed Iraqi minority religious groups including the Yazidis, Christians, Shi’a Muslims, and ethnic minorities like the Shabak and Turkmen. At least 40,000 Yazidi adherents have taken to the Sinjar Mountains, and reports indicate thousands of Christians fled Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq) after ISIL took over the city in June.