Extra food aid for drought-hit Iraqis in northeast

Extra food distributions by NGOs have begun to Iraqi families struggling to meet basic needs in Syria’s drought-hit rural northeast. IRIN went to see the distributions taking place.

At the same time, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is reporting that its 2009 budget for assisting Iraqis - both those displaced inside Iraq and those living as refugees in neighbouring countries - is less than half funded.

The vast majority of Syria’s estimated one million Iraqi refugees live in and around Damascus, but some of the poorest have chosen to settle in the countryside of Hassake Governorate where rents are half what they are in the cities.

However, a three-year drought has decimated Syria’s agricultural sector and dried up jobs and incomes for the refugees there.

“The drought affects the total population because of the lack of possibilities for people to find jobs,” Philippe Leclerc, deputy head of the UNHCR mission in Syria, told IRIN.

Over 50 percent of UNHCR’s Iraq Operation budget, which assists some of the 4.7 million Iraqis displaced or made refugees in Iraq and the region since the conflict began in 2003, is yet to be funded by the donor community. In 2008, a total budget of US$271 million was 98 percent funded, including a carryover from 2007. The USA supplied the bulk of that budget, some $175 million.

According to the latest figures from the UNHCR Iraq Support Unit in Geneva, the 2009 budget is just under $300 million - of which UNHCR has received $140.6 million.

“Lack of funding will not enable us to cover all the humanitarian needs of refugees in and outside Iraq. The social and economic vulnerability of Iraqi refugees in host countries will increase with lack of food, health and education support,” Samih Bulbul, desk officer for the UNHCR Iraq Support Unit in Geneva, told IRIN.

Food aid in Hassake

Photo: ReliefWeb
A map of Syria highlighting drought-hit Hassake Governorate in the northeast

There are currently 8,334 Iraqi refugees registered with the UNHCR in Hassake Governorate, with 4,974 of them receiving food aid from UNHCR, according to the last distribution carried out at the end of March.

To meet shortfalls, an additional food distribution to the refugees in Hassake was launched in early April by the US-based NGO A Plate For All, working with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All East (GOPA).

The distribution targeted 350 of the most vulnerable refugee families, 225 in Hassake city, and 125 in Qamishli city, in the far northeast, providing them with food boxes worth about $25 each.

Saleem Ahran, who fled Baghdad in 2006, explained the priorities for the refugee community in Hassake Governorate. “Firstly we need money for rent, then food and then healthcare,” he said.

“A Plate for All addresses food security issues because, alongside paying rent, food is the most pressing need… With food and rent covered, refugees are more likely to send their children to school and to maintain good health,” said Amelia Reese, A Plate for All’s programme director.

The drought has spurred inflation leaving even Syrian families in Hassake struggling.

Even rents of around $120 per month in Hassake have begun to increase, said Walid, a former Caritas employee from Baghdad who was forced to leave Iraq when humanitarian workers were targeted by militias.

“I did not use a heater all winter because it is too expensive,” he said, adding that his total monthly income was $200.


Photo: Bridget Auger/IRIN
Syria’s record drought has hit Iraqi refugees living in rural areas. These corn fields in Hassake governorate need one more rainfall or they will perish, locals said

Delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees in Hassake Governorate is made more difficult by the large area over which they have settled.

“Because the refugee population is so dispersed it is hard for all of them to come to one area,” said the UNHCR’s Leclerc.

Iraqi refugees in remote rural areas have had to pay for transport to get to the central UNHCR registration facilities in the past, but last year UNHCR launched a mobile registration unit in the governorate. The UNHCR also pays for transport every two months to food distribution centres.

There are currently 205,754 Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR across Syria. Most live in Damascus and other urban centres. The figure is lower than figures for the end of 2008, “due to a verification exercise that showed that 23,000 refugees may not be habitual residents in Syria,” said Carole Laleve, reporting officer for UNHCR Damascus.

On 5 May UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond announced the agency was revising its guidelines on the return of Iraqi refugees, saying some areas of the north and south were now considered safe, though Baghdad and central areas remained too dangerous for families to return to.

Although not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Syria has demonstrated laudable generosity in welcoming some 1.2 million Iraqis fleeing the war over the past few years, according to the UNHCR Global Appeal 2008-2009.