Bleak future for Iraq's displaced

The huge number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq – and the possibility that by the end of the year there could be two million more – has recently recaptured some attention in the news. In early May, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Iraq, Ján Kubiš, declared the humanitarian crisis in Iraq to be “one of the world’s worst”, and the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016 from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre included the fact that over half of the global total of IDPs reside in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq alone.

What remains less recognized are the widespread locations of Iraq’s IDPs, and the inability of both the government of Iraq and humanitarian agencies to provide adequate aid and services to them. Iraq’s most recent security and economic developments – regular ISIS attacks in recent weeks, and falling oil prices resulting in a huge lack of funding for public services – have increased the challenges of delivering humanitarian assistance in the country, particularly in the central governorates.

We’ve become accustomed to hearing about the extreme generosity of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and its hosting of roughly one million IDPs, in addition to the quarter of a million Syrian refugees who reside in the same three governorates. The KRI – which is also suffering financially from the downturn in oil prices – has labored for five years to welcome and provide for all those seeking refuge inside its borders. The efforts of both the people and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan have saved and improved many lives.

But what of the other 2.3 million IDPs in Iraq? Half of those, or 1.1 million, are concentrated in the central governorates of Anbar and Baghdad, while the rest are more widely and less densely dispersed across the central and southern regions. Anbar and Baghdad are arguably the most affected by the continuing violence in Iraq, but the support available to the IDPs there is not keeping up with the needs.

We spoke to people whose family members had died for lack of medical care after they were displaced, people who lived in an abandoned building with raw sewage filling the entryway, people who would not send their children to school because they felt it was too dangerous to leave the IDP camp, and people who did not know where the next meal would come from.

Refugees International visited the KRI in August 2014 to learn more about the several waves of displacement that had happened earlier in the year. At that time, IDPs and service providers alike all said that they suspected things were much worse for IDPs in the rest of the country, but nobody knew for sure because most aid groups and the government were unable to access the area safely. One year later, when RI was able to visit some of the IDP settlements in Anbar and Baghdad, people told us about how they had been displaced several times, how the government’s monthly food distributions were not forthcoming, and how there was no electricity where they were now living.

We spoke to people whose family members had died for lack of medical care after they were displaced, people who lived in an abandoned building with raw sewage filling the entryway, people who would not send their children to school because they felt it was too dangerous to leave the IDP camp, and people who did not know where the next meal would come from.

Up to two million people could be newly displaced from Mosul this year.

That was nine months ago. Since then, another quarter of a million Iraqis have been displaced and the insecurity in the country has increased, much of it focused around the central region. Funding shortages make it difficult for the government to provide for a humanitarian need as basic as food, and dangerous conditions in many places make it all but impossible for even the most willing aid groups to offer materials and services. Local groups of Iraqi volunteers are struggling to help the people in their communities. But as the country’s social, political and economic problems increase, the government and the world are largely losing focus on the humanitarian situation.

Right now, the situation in Mosul is a primary concern for donors and service providers alike. Whether because of a military operation or because of a failed dam, up to two million people could be newly displaced from Mosul this year, and they will not necessarily be able to relocate to the KRI which has become more and more difficult to access. The IDP population of central and southern Iraq could thus almost double, and without any guarantee that humanitarian access would become easier, leaving even more people vulnerable without a reliable way to find support. The government of Iraq and the local and international humanitarians will certainly continue to do what they can. But the scale of need and the lack of funding make the future look bleak.