One year after Islamist militants seized control of Iraq’s second city Mosul, the country is sinking into an ever-deepening quagmire with more than eight million people now in need of “life-saving assistance.”
Following Mosul’s fall last June, half a million people fled their homes, joining some 400,000 already displaced by fighting between the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) and government forces in Anbar province that began in January.
Altogether, in the space of just 18 months, close to three million Iraqis have been uprooted by the crisis, according to the Displacement Tracking Matrix of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
This is on top of an estimated one million people already displaced from historic conflict, and in addition to the 240,000 Syrian refugees being hosted in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
Shrinking budgets, growing needs
Restricted by dwindling funds, aid agencies face the challenge of balancing an emergency response for the newly displaced – most recently from Ramadi in Anbar – with a longer-term resilience and development strategy.
“We are in a situation of both emergency and protracted displacement at the same time,” said Grainne O’Hara, deputy representative in Iraq for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, explaining the complexity of the response.
“You have people who are newly-displaced, those who have been displaced for six months to a year, and on top of that, you have an estimated one million people still displaced from previous rounds of conflict.”
There is also a pressing need to provide support for host communities, who are sharing precious resources like water, electricity, jobs and health services with the new and longer-term internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Failure – perceived or real – to assist host communities could stir up social tensions, which are already strained in a country wracked by sectarian fault lines.
Allen Jelich, country director for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Iraq, which like a number of agencies is looking at longer-term programming, such as supporting rehabilitation of infrastructure and redeveloping livelihoods, said a lot depended on geography.
“In some areas things have calmed down a bit and we are able to start to move from emergency response to what we would call care and maintenance,” he said. But, he cautioned, “additional displacement is still taking place on a very regular basis.”
Following on from cash-for-work schemes and other livelihood pogrammes run by the IOM and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began its so-called “resilience-building” activities last September.
Denise Jeanmonod, spokeswoman for UNDP Iraq, told IRIN: “Though it may look like a drop in the ocean while the emergency continues, we can contribute to stabilisation by helping provide basic services like water and electricity, and creating jobs and other economic opportunities for both displaced people and host communities.
“The pressures on the labour market and service delivery are significant,” she said. “People are waiting longer at the clinic, there are fewer jobs, and last year in Dohuk governorate for example, IDPs occupied some 600 schools.”
In Basra, in southern Iraq, where there are more than 10,000 displaced people spread across more than 200 locations, UNDP has been supporting a livelihoods initiative that trains IDPs in entrepreneurship skills and helped them set up market stalls.
Fahad Al, humanitarian coordinator for Iraqi/Canadian NGO, the Canadian Aid Organization for Iraqi Society and Rehabilitation (CAOFISR) which ran the market project for UNDP, told IRIN that many of the IDPs in the predominantly Shia governorate of Basra were Sunnis, and it was important to create bridges between the two populations.
“Our main goal was to bring host communities and IDPs to live together peacefully despite their differences,” he explained. “Also, instead of just giving people food, water and blankets, we are trying to think more longer term.
“The training and the market gives displaced families, who have lost their jobs, home and savings, a chance to rebuild for themselves, rather rely on handouts.”
UNDP’s Jeanmonod said social cohesion was at the heart of all livelihood activities.
“New arrivals are not only in many cases from different religions and communities but they are putting pressure on already limited services. It is a fragile situation,” she said.
But while some projects in calmer parts of the country, like Basra, are getting off the ground, in many other parts of Iraq displacement continues, and it is likely to do so for some time as the Iraqi security forces continue to take on IS militants.
In the last few weeks, the UN estimates more than 230,000 people have been displaced from and within Anbar governorate due to the fighting between IS and government forces.
A planned offensive to retake Mosul and the surrounding areas from IS is also likely to trigger significant additional displacement in the months to come.
Fabio Forgione, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Iraq, noted that while the protracted nature of the displacement was one concern, the widespread damage to infrastructure, like water pipes, roads, health centres and schools, was also a major challenge.
“Many areas have been badly damaged in fighting so even when people start to return they are going back to very limited infrastructure and places that will need a lot of rebuilding before services are up and running again,” he said.
MSF, he said, were keen to start providing some more medium to long-term support, including building up capacity of local hospitals and community health services, but the ongoing instability in places like Tikrit and Anbar was an issue.
“There is a high probability that the needs will only continue to increase with offensives planned for Anbar and Mosul,” Forgione said. “We don’t think we have reached the peak of the violence or displacement yet.”
However, as challenges mounts, so the funding stocks diminish.
A US$500million donation from Saudi Arabia presented to the UN in June last year, shortly after the first IDP exodus from Mosul, has long been exhausted.
Last month, UN agencies warned that a poor response from donors to a subsequent appeal meant that it had begun to close emergency programmes and cut food rations.
UNHCR’s O’Hara told IRIN: “We are talking about ever-increasing numbers of people that need help while resources are only decreasing. This is impacting the quality of assistance people can receive.”
On Thursday the UN launched a new US$500million appeal to cover aid provision for 5.6 million Iraqis over the next six months alongside a #SaveIraq media campaign.
Speaking ahead of the appeal launch, Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said: “We're facing a catastrophic scenario for the millions of Iraqis affected by this crisis.
“It's a massive whirlwind of displacement for families forced to flee repeatedly for their lives. With the humanitarian response in Iraq chronically underfunded, the world needs to wake up to this massive unfolding disaster and help scale up lifesaving aid."