Tens of thousands of Iraqis have yet to receive aid despite funding pouring into relief efforts, according to NGOs.
Security concerns due to advances by Islamist militants and logistical hold-ups have prevented much of the funding - including a US$500 million donation from Saudi Arabia - from reaching those most in need.
On 12 August, the UN declared Iraq a Level Three Emergency - its highest emergency classification. More than 1.2 million people have fled their homes since January following a surge by jihadist militants now referring to themselves as the Islamic State (formerly ISIS). Hundreds of thousands are in desperate need of shelter, food, water and medical care.
The international response has been significant: On 1 July, Saudi Arabia announced it would send $500million to the UN, while US and UK helicopters have been air-dropping food, water and other basic supplies to thousands of people fleeing from ISIS and stranded on a mountain. The Saudi grant, among others, means that, unusually for a humanitarian crisis, the UN has received more funding than it had requested.
Yet the scale and unpredictability of the emergency has left the humanitarian community struggling to keep up, with Amnesty International this week criticizing relief efforts. “The international response to large-scale displacement of civilians from areas seized by ISIS has been woefully inadequate to date,” Amnesty said in a statement. It added that the much-publicized airdrops had been largely ineffective because water bottles and other items smashed on impact with the ground.
Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s senior crisis response adviser, told IRIN: “Where I have been in recent days, the aid response has been nearly invisible. Organizations need to explain why they have not been there on the ground delivering on a larger scale.”
A mammoth undertaking
Part of the problem is the rapid rise of ISIS, which has targeted ethnic minorities and is perceived to be deeply hostile to aid workers, making large swathes of the country inaccessible for NGOs.
In June the group overcame the Iraqi security forces to seize the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, prompting several hundred thousand people to flee. Most travelled northwards to the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, which, in contrast to the rest of Iraq, has been largely calm since the 2003 US-led invasion.
According to the latest figures, there are over 500,000 displaced Iraqis inside Kurdistan, the majority either in tented camps, collective shelters like schools and mosques, or sleeping in parks and unfinished buildings.
The region, which was already hosting 220,000 Syrian refugees before this latest influx, is severely over-stretched, partly because of a dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which has not received its 2014 budget allocation from central government.
Housing space is also at a premium. When IRIN spoke to Jacqueline Badcock, the UN deputy special representative in Iraq in late July, she said overcrowding was so bad that agencies were seeking to establish camps outside Kurdish territory but in areas protected by the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdistan’s armed forces).
Yet the ISIS advance has made such plans impossible in the short-term. In recent weeks, even Kurdistan has been threatened, as the militants have crept to within a few kilometres of the border, breaking through lines of Peshmerga fighters.
This has led to some camps being abandoned - more than 5,000 IDPs who were in Khazair camp, next to one of the main border crossings between Iraq and Kurdistan, and several thousand from Garwama Camp in Dohuk, fled their tents on 8 August after the Peshmerga said they could not guarantee their protection from the advancing militants.
The UN has admitted that the changing dynamics of the crisis have made it difficult to keep abreast of the situation. “This is a very complex and violent conflict, and a very highly fluid and rapidly changing emergency which is testing the capacity of the UN,” explained Brendan McDonald, acting head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Iraq.
“There are new as well as secondary and tertiary displacements happening every single day throughout the country…. [and] the UN, NGOs and partners are mobilizing resources and ramping up, but the pace of the emergency has so far outstripped our capabilities, despite best efforts.”
While humanitarian actors are trying to support those who have made it into Kurdistan, there are still several hundred thousand Iraqis stuck outside Iraqi Kurdistan in areas under ISIS control. They are getting very little aid because it is too dangerous to distribute there.
French NGO ACTED said a negotiated humanitarian corridor “must be accepted” by all sides, including ISIS, because without access “people will continue to die of thirst, food and persecution”.
Gaia Van Der Esch, deputy regional director for ACTED in the Middle East, said: “A humanitarian crisis is taking place before the eyes of the humanitarian community”, adding that it was frustrating to be so physically close to people in need - in some cases just a few kilometres - but still unable to get aid items to them because the area was too insecure.
Raefah Makki, senior communications officer at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said many areas of the country, including parts of Nineveh (which borders Kurdistan), Diyala, Anbar and Saleheddin provinces, were off-limits.
“Areas that are witnessing [an] increase of violence are becoming hard to reach… Some volunteers were trapped and even displaced just like other civilians affected by the situation,” she said.
One further concern has been over the UN’s ability to get money out to Iraqis quickly. The UN’s Badcock said they aimed to use the Saudi grant as quickly as possible. “[The $500 million] is all for the next six to nine months - that was the specific request from the Saudis; they would like it spent as fast as possible. They see very large needs on the ground, which they are quite correct [about], of course, and they specifically asked that it be spent for all Iraqis throughout the whole country - irrespective of religion, ethnic background, tribal background,” she said.
Yet the funding was pledged a month ago and turning it into projects on the ground quickly is far from a straightforward process. OCHA’s McDonald said they were trying to balance the need to scale up with the risk of misallocation of funds. “$500 million is a lot of money but you need to put measures in place for its allocation. You can’t just hand out cash, you need to have agreements,” he said.
“What the Saudi money has done is enable the UN system as a whole to ramp up its operations, but a lot of items cannot be procured straight away, they need to be tendered for and that takes time,” he added.
NGOs have also complained that the way the aid has been dispersed has made it somewhat slower. Unusually for a humanitarian crisis, the entirety of the Saudi donation has been directed straight to OCHA rather than to other UN agencies. OCHA is therefore directing the funding onwards, but NGOs have complained that this process has been slow, preventing them from scaling up their projects rapidly.
One senior aid worker from an international NGO told IRIN: “We have been delivering support to IDPs [internally displaced persons] on the understanding that we would get the money from the [Saudi] fund, once things started to trickle down, but so far not much is trickling down.
“We would have expected to have contracts signed off by now so we could feel secure enough to bring in more staff and supplies, but now we are in a bit of a situation of waiting for over one month, and if the money doesn’t start to come through very quickly, it could be a major challenge.” Other NGOs complained of unusually long waits for projects to be signed off.
McDonald from OCHA acknowledged there had been delays. “Getting funding to flow through to NGOs has been a bit of a challenge, but it is being addressed as we speak.”
There are, however, positive signs that the delays are finally being dealt with. In the past 48 hours, more aid has been distributed by various agencies and NGOs and new tented camps are being set up both inside Kurdistan, and also in the south of Iraq, in Basra and Missan.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has established four field kitchens in Dohuk Province with its local partners, and is feeding over 100,000 people per day, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is supporting the effort with mobile health teams on Sinjar Mountain and at border crossings, along with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
MSF programme manager Gustavo Fernandez said that by working with local relief organizations, they had so far distributed over 20 tons of food as well as 60,000 litres of bottled water at three transit points across the Syrian-Iraqi border. MSF was one of the few agencies able to access those stuck on the mountain.
“We have also managed to send food and water supplies to people still stuck in the Sinjar mountains and we are now looking at possible ways to deliver medical supplies there,” he added.
The UN Strategic Response Plan, launched in March and appealing for $103million to support 240,000 people, was being rewritten to factor in the Saudi donation. However, following this latest wave of displacement from Sinjar, the plan is being re-done for a third time and is due to be released next month.