The new United Nations aid chief has used his first overseas trip to highlight Iraq's humanitarian crisis, telling IRIN he is desperately seeking more funds and better access to the country.
In one of his first interviews since taking over as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O'Brien also pushed for displaced Iraqis to be given free movement within the country.
Visiting the Baharka internally displaced persons (IDP) camp outside Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, O'Brien stressed that the UN's 2015 humanitarian response plan for Iraq aimed to provide life-saving support – including shelter, water and food – to nearly three million IDPs.
Speaking outside in 40-degree heat with clouds of dust swirling through the camp, O’Brien said: “It's really important for me to see with my own eyes where the humanitarian need is most sharp. Here, in this particular area of Kurdistan in Iraq, we have a very, very serious situation which we must be able to meet.”
The visit comes at a time when the UN is warning that Iraq is on the verge of collapse.
Lise Grande, UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, has said that a severe lack of funding could force more than half of the relief operations in the country to close down in the coming weeks.
The UN launched a drive last week to raise nearly $500 million for its 2015 response plan, only a fraction of which has so far been pledged.
IRIN understands Kuwait has made a large pledge to the UN in Iraq but this has not yet been made public or confirmed by the UN or Kuwait.
O'Brien confirmed Kuwait had offered greater support but would not give specific details. “There's a clear statement… of the wish of Kuwait to make money available,” he said. “It's not as yet settled on the modality.”
The choice of Iraq for O'Brien's first overseas trip signals just how important dealing with the crisis is to the new UN aid chief.
“He's afraid of Iraq falling between the cracks,” a UN staff member, who spoke off the record because he was not authorised to brief the media, told IRIN.
In total, the UN says over 8.2 million people require immediate humanitarian support as a consequence of the conflict between Iraqi security forces and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS).
Limited access is hindering the ability of the UN to operate. Currently, its response is centred around the relatively stable northern region of Kurdistan.
“Let's be clear: we need access,” O'Brien said. “If we get it, we'll go after the humanitarian relief as quickly as we can.”
Security threats prevent the UN from helping directly in areas under the control of the Islamic State and where there is ongoing fighting, like the city of Mosul in the north or western Anbar province.
Of the 250,000 Ramadi residents displaced since the launch of military operations on 8 April, more than half remain in Anbar province, where the UN can only assist through local partners.
“The main thing is we target all our resources where humanitarian need arises,” O'Brien said. “To do that, not only do we have to assess what the humanitarian need is, above all we have to have access.”
Limited freedom of movement for IDPs has also restricted access to vulnerable populations. Recent reports show thousands of Anbar residents have been blocked from leaving the province after Iraqi officials announced concerns that IS supporters may conceal themselves in their midst.
Likewise, the Kurdistan region – which currently hosts more than one million IDPs – has restricted freedom of movement for some Arab Iraqis.
O'Brien said he was advocating for greater freedom of movement for IDPs and that he had received “clear commitments” from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in this regard.
Acknowledging the concerns of the KRG, which has seen the population in the territory it governs swell by nearly a third since the beginning of the displacement crisis, he said the ability of people to return home was also a priority.
“We need to create the conditions where people will have the chance to return to the areas and the homes from whence they came – that's really important.”
During his visit to Baharka camp, O'Brien heard from displaced families about their experiences fleeing from IS. He said he would use the testimony to help argue the case for more funding.
O'Brien, a former British international development minister and Conservative member of parliament, has replaced Valerie Amos, who stepped down in May after being in the role since 2010.