Iraq’s refugee crisis could spin out of control, UN warns

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By Alexander Whitcomb
Iraqi Girls in camp carry water to their tent.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, which now stands at 3.6 million displaced persons, may become unmanageable if the international community does not play a bigger role, a high-ranking United Nations official told reporters Thursday in Erbil.

“We hope to reinvigorate interest in Iraq. Its needs are enormous and we need to make sure we find the means to respond to these needs now” said Volker Turk, the most senior UN official responsible for protection of refugees, speaking on the second day of his visit.

With the Islamic State scoring further victories against the Iraqi military in Ramadi and Baiji, sectarian tensions spreading beyond conflict zones, and the possibility of prolonged bloody campaigns in Anbar and Mosul, the UN is preparing for the worst in tandem with local authorities.

As plans move forward for a Mosul campaign, however, the UN’s Iraq coffers are running low. Just as critically, there is a lack of coordination between the numerous organs of Iraq’s fractious government.

“Contingency planning is something everybody is doing. The regional governments, governors, various ministries…But what Mr Turk is encouraging everyone to do it together,” said Neill Wright, a UN refugee agency representative for Iraq.

Wright also cited the enormous difficulty of dealing with Sunni Arab refugees coming from conflict zones into areas administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

“The government needs to provide a place of safety for them. But it needs to make sure they are coming for safely, not for other reasons,” he said, acknowledging increased security precautions in admitting Sunni Arabs to the country’s semi-autonomous north.

This is not a simple issue. It is a heavy responsibility for the authorities to provide safety for the people of Kurdistan and those entering Kurdistan.”

Following a trip to Baghdad, Turk visited several refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Erbil on Thursday.

He praised the local population’s generosity in coping with the humanitarian crisis over the last years. More than 250,000 refugees from Syria live among a local population of only five million inhabitants.

Even more impactful has been the influx of nearly two million IDPs into the region.
Iraq as a whole is now home to over 3.6 million displaced people, according to reports, the second most of any country. In neighboring Syria, six million people have lost their homes in the country’s four years of civil war.

Turk was surprised by the degree of local cooperation between those affected by war.

“I am impressed to see how local people, IDPs, and Syrian refugees come together and cooperate on local councils,” he said.

With no end in sight for the wars in either country, Turk said: “The fate of Syria and Iraq will depend on how communities are able to come together once displaced.”

Volker called on the Iraqi government to account for shifting populations and immediately overhaul its residency-based legal structure. He pointed out that millions of Iraqi citizens lack access to proper benefits, registration, and documentation as the brutal war drags on

“[The system] is not designed to cope with the reality that its population can become displaced,” Volker said.