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Onset of winter brings urgency to Iraq aid effort

28 November 2014


Call for aid: refugees from Syria take part in a protest outside Greece's Parliament in Athens, calling on the Greek government to provide assistance to refugees in Syria

Call for aid: refugees from Syria take part in a protest outside Greece's Parliament in Athens, calling on the Greek government to provide assistanc...

AS WINTER advances, humanitarian organisations are working flat out to provide shelter and other assistance to millions of homeless people in the Middle East who face months of hardship caused by freezing temperatures and heavy rain.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR is ferrying in by air tent-insulation kits to Irbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, from a base in Pakistan. But, as UNHCR's regional director, Amin Awad, says, "time is growing short. With temperatures now dropping across Iraq, we must get this essential support to the most vulnerable Iraqi displaced immediately".

The latest figures indicate that about two million Iraqis have been displaced since January. More than 60,000 people are living in eight tented camps, and new camps are being constructed to house more than 300,000 others. As many as 700,000 people are living in unfinished or abandoned buildings, schools, religious centres, and even in parks. The UN has warned that a funding-shortfall of about £37 million, coupled with this year's sharp recent growth in internal displacement, could leave up to one million Syrians and Iraqis without proper help this winter.

"The shortfall affects our winter preparedness programmes - although we have already invested some £98 million on winter aid for Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced - and means that UNHCR is having to make some very tough choices over who to prioritise," UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, said in Geneva. "Factors we are considering include the elevation of refugee settlements, the composition of the family unit (e.g. number of children and female-headed households), family health concerns, new arrivals, available family resources, shelter conditions and other considerations. For those we're unable to prioritise, the conditions could, none the less, be very tough."

Christian Aid's advocacy officer for Iraq and Syria, Louise Finan, speaking from Irbil, said that she could see "heavy, dark clouds laden with rain rolling in over the mountains, bringing untold misery for hundreds and thousands of newly displaced families. Many families don't yet have secure, safe shelter. I've seen many people pitching tents in car parks, others crowding into a single unfinished room on a building site." Ms Finan concluded: "Frankly, the needs are overwhelming" (www.christianaid.org.uk).

The Evangelical charity Tearfund also says that its team in Iraq are "in a race against time" to help displaced families before "the treacherous winter really sets in. It's already getting cold in Iraq." The charity says that the hardship is being compounded by the fact that many of the homeless do not have adequate clothing, having fled for their lives when Islamic State (IS) forces advanced on their towns and villages. "There was little time to think, let alone pack," Tearfund said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the Tearfund team in Iraq launched a project to give "emergency grants to 3800 of the most vulnerable people so they can buy what they need to survive the winter. We've reached 273 families so far. This means they can buy the warm clothes, blankets, stoves and fuel that will keep them alive through the freezing temperatures" (www.tearfund.org/en-ws/latest/middle_east).

The AMAR International Charitable Foundation is launching a "Winter Warmer Appeal" in response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. "Winter is almost here, and the temperatures in Iraq can drop well below zero. As a bare minimum, these poor people must have warm clothes and blankets, and access to some form of heating. Many will die without these things," said Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, who chairs AMAR. Working with the local government, the United Nations, and other organisations, AMAR is "consulting local religious leaders to ensure our Winter Warmer materials go to those who need it most, doing our best to make sure no one is left out in the cold this Christmas" (http:// uk.virginmoneygiving.com/AMAR_ IraqEmergencyAppeal).

Meanwhile, the UN envoy for Iraq, Nickolay Miadenov, in a speech to the UN Security Council, has denounced IS. He said that its followers' strategy was "to insert themselves in the ethnic and religious fault lines of Iraq, to undermine legitimate authorities, and to spread fear among all communities. Their goals are also clear: to destroy the Iraqi State and replace it with a 'State of Terror' built on genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, advised against adopting a fully fledged military approach to defeating IS. "Little attention has been paid to the underlying struggle for minds," he said.

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