Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Syria Crisis: Help also needed in neighbouring Iraq

Source: European Commission Humanitarian Aid department

Montserrat – or Montse as she is known to her friends and colleagues – recently returned from a mission in Iraq where she visited beneficiaries of ECHO assistance. Her trip took her to the Kurdish part of Iraq which is generously hosting tens of thousands of Syrians (nearly all of whom are of Kurdish origin), who have been fleeing from the tragic civil war in their country.

The number of refugees has now exceeded 210 000 people, of which approximately 60% are living in urban areas and the rest in eight camps, ‘Domiz’ (in the Dohuk Governorate) being the largest. The camp, situated some 60 km from the Syrian border, was put at the disposal of the new arrivals as far back as April 2012 by the local governorate. Originally planned for around 20 000 people, the camp is now housing almost triple that number. However, Montse herself witnessed that the greatest number of refugees are living in the urban areas and melting into the surroundings.

“The Kurdish Regional Government has been exemplary in providing help for the incoming refugees. Those who arrived before August 2013 are allowed to work and to move about freely, which obviously makes their shattered lives a little easier. Fortunately, the Kurdish region of Iraq is peaceful and tranquil – it’s like being in a different country to the rest of Iraq”. “It’s also true”, she continued “that the refugees share the same heritage and speak the same language as their hosts – even though most of the children don’t write the language anymore – and this does make life a little easier for the new arrivals”.

ECHO funding is helping both the people in the Domiz camp and refugees in urban surroundings. “We are particularly conscious of the vulnerabilities of many of the refugees. Our vulnerability criteria include, for example, women-headed families or those with disabled members of family and it is these people who are primarily benefitting from our assistance”. She told me of two beneficiary families that she had met with during her recent mission: “The first was a family with a young autistic son. The father had been a university professor back in Syria. However, despite his freedom to work, he was unable to leave the house because of the condition of his son who had to be protected at all times”. “Another example”, tells Montse, “was an aged mother who still had the responsibility for her three disabled adult children between the ages of 40 to 50. This was another case of acute vulnerability for which we were able to provide assistance”.

Montse described the type of help provided by our partners and was particularly eloquent about the voucher system which had been introduced by the World Food Programme, assisting around 60 000 refugees. “This is an important part of our contribution. Each vulnerable family receives around EUR 30 per member per month. Instead of hand-outs of specific food items, families can choose what they wish to buy in well-stocked pre-defined shops. The choice must be extremely liberating and it also helps people maintain a certain dignity”. It seems that the idea is also spreading – UNICEF is providing hand-outs of hygiene and household kits but these may soon be eliminated and replaced by a system of vouchers. “In other regions and countries, an ATM card is now distributed for the same purpose, but in the Kurdish region these machines are scarce”.

“The challenge for our partners, as well as the Kurdish authorities, is to know when the flow will stop and how long before their guests can return home”. With the increase in hostilities over the entire region and the worsening security situation within Iraq itself, prospects look rather dim for the moment. Montse was adamant: “We are making a difference with our € 13.5 million funding, and I sincerely hope we can continue providing aid for as long as it is necessary. Every child I met, I compared their lives with those of my own three children. They also deserve a future and can only get by with our help.”

The European Commission, through its Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, provided € 13.5 million for Iraq in 2013 in response to the refugee influx from Syria. In doing so, it is estimated to have assisted almost 200 000 people. In 2013, ECHO also continued to support the needs of internally displaced people in Iraq and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.