1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Iraq

Refugee or IDP - does it really matter?

Syrian refugees and Iraqi refugees live in separate camps in northern Iraq Cathy Otten/IRIN
At Harsham camp on the northern edge of Erbil, internally displaced Iraqi families who fled Mosul and its surrounding villages to escape Islamist militants stock their tents with donated blankets and warm clothes in preparation for the fast-advancing winter.

At the Kawergosk camp, 25km away, Syrian refugees are doing the same. Yet their winter kits and food parcels will mostly likely contain different items and be delivered by different teams funded by different donors.

Both groups are fleeing what the international community now views as the same crisis, yet due to UN protocols and how funding is allocated, internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Iraq and refugees from Syria are being supported by, in some cases, completely separate programmes - despite their similar needs and geographical proximity.

This duplication is prompting experts to call for a rethink on how organizations in Iraq - and elsewhere - respond to dual caseloads of IDPs and refugees, with a strong push to prioritize based upon need rather than status.

A root cause

Iraq is hosting more than 220,000 Syrian refugees and since January 1.9 million nationals have been uprooted due to the territorial advance of militants calling themselves the Islamic State.

Nearly all the Syrian refugees and around half of the Iraqi IDPs are in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan where the issues of parallel programming are most evident.

Fabio Forgione, head of mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Iraq, told IRIN how a new maternity unit his organization had opened in Domiz refugee camp in Dohuk was currently only accessible by Syrians, and not open to displaced Iraqis sheltering nearby.

“Services are running in parallel all over, particularly when it comes to camps, because Iraqi IDPs are not allowed to enter Syrian refugee camps,” he explained.

Although acknowledging the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan was “unique”, and not all programming could be shared because resources had to be rationalized, Forgione said: “Our idea is to be able to put a referral system in place in the areas that we work to give access to some IDPs and priority cases… and this is what we are trying to negotiate at the moment.”

The NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI), an umbrella body of local and international organizations, is also calling for a more joined-up response.

“As the humanitarian response should be needs-based, there is no valid reason to differentiate between aid for IDPs or refugees,” said Hashim Assaf, NCCI’s executive coordinator.

“Both of these groups are residing in the same locations and require the same urgent humanitarian aid… [and] the current differentiation could create gaps or duplication in the humanitarian response and coordination efforts,” he added, calling for a “more integrated approach for the Iraq and Syria response”.

Refugees, whose rights are enshrined in the 1951 UN convention, have a different legal status to IDPs, whose rights are a little less clear-cut. Governments maintain responsibility for IDPs - who are their citizens - and there is a non-binding set of principles for IDPs but aid agencies complement, and in many cases lead, that response.

Sectors and clusters

In Iraq the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is leading the UN agencies to support the IDPs, using what is known as a “cluster system”, while the refugee caseload is led by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) under a so-called “sector system”.

“Clusters” are groups of UN and non-UN organisations, including NGOs, responsible for coordination of humanitarian response, led by a Resident Coordinator and/or Humanitarian Coordinator and the Humanitarian Country Team.

But for refugees, aid agencies work in “sectors” (e.g. protection, food security, education, shelter, WASH), under the leadership of UNHCR.

In the case of Iraq, donor money is allocated either to the Syrian refugee sectorial response or the Iraqi displacement clusters. This was the case of the recent US$500million donation to the UN by Saudi Arabia, which specified the money was only to be used for Iraqi IDPs, not Syrian refugees.

However, while programme distinctions can be clear-cut, often they are not.

Rebecca Dibb, programme director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Iraq, which works with both Syrian refugees and Iraqi IDPs, gave an example of when things are more blurred.

“In Erbil we are starting a new shelter rehabilitation project in the poorer areas of the city, where we are looking to improve conditions for Syrian refugees who are renting there,” she explained. “However, living among the Syrian refugees are IDPs… even more in need and vulnerable. It’s hard to know how to balance that.”

Dibb called on donors to be more flexible about how they allocate their funds.

“You can’t just talk to and help one family and ignore the other one next door. We believe the focus should be about vulnerabilities."
“It can be a tough situation to manage when you have specific donor requirements for certain caseloads of beneficiaries,” she said. “You can’t just talk to and help one family and ignore the other one next door. We believe the focus should be about vulnerabilities.”

Dawn Chatty, professor of anthropology and forced migration at the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford, also questioned the practice of allocating aid according to “on-paper labels”.

“Why are we making certain kinds of distinctions between what assistance we give to a group that has a particular label and another group that doesn’t have that label, when they are both actually fleeing the same crisis?” she asked.

“In Iraq you had the case of the Iraqi Yazidis who fled Mount Sinjar. Many of them became refugees when they crossed into Syria, but then when they crossed back into Iraqi Kurdistan, they were re-categorized as IDPs, which rather makes a nonsense of these categories being so rigidly adhered to.”

She added: “Not everyone wants to be called a refugee,” she said. “Many people crossing into countries like Turkey prefer to be called muhajir(migrant). They are not interested in third country re-settlement; what they want is some temporary protection and to sustain themselves until they can go back home.

“People being displaced internally are in the same position and I think the international humanitarian and refugee regime has got to do a lot of thinking about this.”

A four-page joint policy document issued in April this year by UNHCR and OCHA was designed to address the problems of co-ordination in situations where you have both IDPs and refugees.

It distinguishes between contexts where IDPs and other affected populations are “geographically separate from refugees” and when they are “geographically mixed”.

When the communities are not mixed, there should be separate “clusters” and “sectors”, the document says, but it is less specific when the communities are geographically mixed. In this case the guidance is: “In all circumstances the inter-cluster co-ordinator and the UNHCR refugee co-ordinator share information and ensure mutually reinforcing approaches.”

The paper also makes no reference to donor funding, which many see as being at the heart of this problem of parallel programming.

Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for Washington-based advocacy NGO Refugees International, said: “You can end up with two different systems because the two different populations are being funded separately even though they do have many of the same needs.”

Starting to adapt

One major donor does seem to be listening to concerns from agencies about parallel funding streams and associated inefficiencies.

“For us, the point of entry for principled humanitarian action remains the needs of affected populations; whoever they are, wherever they are,” said Javier Rio-Navarro, Iraq head of office for European Union aid body ECHO.

“Funding decisions by the European Commission have integrated such needs-based approaches, distancing its assistance from earmarking labels,” he added, noting that there were plans for more integrated funding next year.

“Under the Humanitarian Intervention Programme for Iraq in 2015, we will consider both Syrian refugees in Iraq as well as Iraqi IDPs and vulnerable communities,” he explained, which is a change from the current arrangement, which directs funding to people based on their nationality.

He added: “We consider that to be much more coherent with a needs-based approach which at the same time might be more cost-efficient… Any push in that direction for donors and [the] overall humanitarian community would be much welcomed.”

Another positive example of a more coordinated approach was when, earlier this year, the World Food Programme (WFP) sub-procured supplies which had been warehoused in Anbar Governorate for Syrian refugees at Al Qaim camp and distributed them to displaced Iraqis.

However, that was only possible because WFP had sufficient funds to buy the goods from itself. If in the future there is a gap in the supply chain for IDP distributions but stock set aside for refugees, or vice-versa, and WFP does not have any available funds, the agency would not be able to just “borrow” the goods, because of donor rules about who they had been supplied to.

Grisgraber acknowledges that it is not always practical - or possible - to combine programming for IDPs and refugees due to cultural and ethnic differences, but on the other hand, forcing separation can lead to additional overheads and risks of duplication.

Referring to the OCHA and UNHCR policy document, she added: “Nothing in any humanitarian response ever works exactly the way it is supposed to on paper, but these policies are meant to function as a guideline, and you can sometimes get the impression that no-one is truly looking at them.”

Privately many aid workers in Iraqi Kurdistan expressed deep frustrations at the divisions between the clusters and sectors and said they felt part of the disconnect was down to what they saw as an internal power struggle between UNHCR, which has been operating in the country for some years supporting refugees, and the newly-established OCHA team.

However, Jacqueline Parlevliet, a senior UNHCR protection adviser, told IRIN that having a parallel cluster and sector response was not a problem, and said that staff meetings were held back-to-back for refugee and IDP teams, to save time.

“There is no risk of inefficiency because we make sure there is a lot of co-ordination,” she insisted. “The funds are very distinctly allocated. The biggest concern is whether we have the humanitarian capacity to respond to everybody at once.”

Brendan McDonald, Senior Humanitarian Affairs Officer with OCHA in Iraq, told IRIN: "OCHA, in partnership with UNCHR and lead agencies and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), is committed to ensuring that response mechanisms are efficient and effective as possible and that is why we are currently undertaking a review with all stakeholders."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.