The on going war with the Islamic State has created another humanitarian disaster in Iraq. There are over 3 million displaced with more leaving their homes as fighting shifts to different parts of the country. The Iraqi government has been hard pressed to meet the needs of these people, and the international community has failed to meet several calls for donations by the United Nations. Even in areas that have been cleared of insurgents there are disputes over who should be allowed back. To help explain this situation is Bruno Geddo who is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Iraq.
1. Iraq is facing another humanitarian crisis with all of the displaced caused by the war with the Islamic State. The United Nations has put out several calls for international donors to provide aid. According to one U.N. official the amount asked for is actually below what is actually needed and yet countries have still not given enough. Why do you think the world community has not been stepping up to the plate and providing money for Iraq in this time of need?
Globally, we are witnessing record numbers of people being forcibly driven from their homes due to war and conflict. This year, we are predicting that the number of people displaced due to conflict and persecution will reach more than 60 million for the first time ever. That means, around the world, one person in every 122 has been forced to flee their home.
For humanitarian agencies like UNHCR, there have never been so many demands on us to provide help; yet while the needs are growing, funding is not keeping pace. And that means we and other agencies are struggling to meet all the humanitarian needs on the ground.
This has an impact on our work here in Iraq.
When a displacement situation becomes protracted and there is no prospect for durable solutions in sight, it is sometimes challenging to find the right balance between what is needed and what the international community is willing to contribute. We can call this an “ethical gap”.
In the case of Iraq, the figure for the UN’s 2016 humanitarian response plan tries to strike this balance by setting a total amount of $860m which falls short of what is actually needed to provide a comprehensive response to humanitarian needs, but reflects the immediate lifesaving needs of the 3.2 million displaced Iraqis and 250,000 Syrian refugees.
2. The Displacement Ministry has been criticized for a number of reasons. What does this organization provide Iraq’s internal refugees and have you heard about any problems with how its operates?
UNHCR has a standing agreement with the Ministry of Migration and Displacement (MODM) to conduct the registration of Iraqis forced to leave their homes due to conflict. This is the condition for them to have access to the public distribution system, including the smart card allocation of one million Iraqi dinars (approximate $840).
UNHCR is working very closely with the MoDM to make sure that enough local capacity is built into Iraqi institutions to register and assist internally displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees according to international standards.
3. As the war has progressed and some territories have been re-taken the process of returns has begun. In Salahaddin for example, the provincial capital of Tikrit and the surrounding towns were liberated, and several thousand people have been able to go back. What is it like for people in Tikrit and other places in terms of services, government’s operating, and security and has everyone been able to go back because there are many reports of vendettas against certain families who are accused of being IS collaborators?
As a symbol of national reconciliation, the return of displaced Iraqis is a process of utmost importance to UNHCR. However, it requires conducive conditions on the ground. This is why UNHCR insists that the return process has to be carefully planned and carried out on the basis of the international humanitarian principles of voluntary, safe and sustainable returns.
On our side, UNHCR is implementing quick impact projects in selected areas of both Tikrit and Diyala with the aim of bringing people together and fostering peaceful co-existence. This includes shops and market repairs, garbage collection, community halls, small-scale shelter and agricultural projects.
For returns to be safe the government has to conduct security screening and the job of the international community is to advocate and make sure that such processes are carried out with the appropriate legal safeguards and are not arbitrary.
4. There have been various stories of places like Baghdad, Kurdistan and Kirkuk blocking displaced from entering, trying to put restrictions on them or even expelling some of them. Could you provide some details about these cases and why was it happening?
It is vital to ensure access to safety for people forced to flee their homes [and that] is of paramount importance in Iraq. While it is legitimate to conduct security screening of displaced populations prior to admission to safe areas, this should not be allowed to become an arbitrary or protracted process as many displaced families find themselves in insecure locations which may be exposed to indirect fire while they wait at checkpoints. At the same time, UNHCR is tirelessly advocating that security screening should not be allowed to translate into collective punishment of an entire group because of their perceived association with extremists.
UNHCR has opened camps for displaced families in Ameriyat al-Fallujah (the safest district in Anbar province), just a few kilometres from Bzeibiz bridge, so that in the case of shifting war fronts threatening the security of displaced families, they will be able to cross into Baghdad for their safety.
UNHCR has also opened a new camp in Kirkuk so that newly arrived displaced Iraqis can have access to safety and registration.
5. Finally, do you think Iraq has reached the tipping point where there will be no more mass displacement and the real struggle will be providing aid and helping people return or do you think major dislocations can still happen in the country?
Unfortunately, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Everyone is waiting for the day when a massive military offensive will be undertaken by the government to retake control of Mosul.
Large-scale civilian population movements can be expected in the wake of such an offensive and UNHCR and other UN agencies and partners have developed contingency plans and an emergency response capacity (UNHCR, for example, has 20,000 tents as contingency stocks as well as core relief items).
In 2014, the international community was caught unprepared for a massive emergency, which was understandable. With an estimated 1.5 million people still living in Mosul, we will not be forgiven if this were to happen again in 2016
Areas of the country that have come back under government control need to be made safe; services need to be restored and public buildings rehabilitated. Unexploded ordnance is still a big issue. Families will only return when it is safe for them to do so; when their city’s infrastructure is restored, when their homes are habitable.
UNHCR and the international community need to ensure that when returns occur, they are done on a voluntary basis and the minimal conditions are in place to ensure that people go back safely.
This will take some time.