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Taking stock of the UN’s shift away from emergency aid in Iraq

Twenty years on from the US-led invasion, can the Iraqi authorities step up and assume more responsibility?

Five women and two children are pictures walking through Khanke Camp. Behind them we see tents all labeled with the UNHCR logo. Ari Jalal/Reuters
Displaced Yazidi women who were forced to flee Sinjar at Khanke camp, on the outskirts of Iraq's Dohuk province, in 2019.

Twenty years since the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and more than five years after the country declared victory against so-called Islamic State, the UN is in the process of rolling out a major change in how it provides aid in the country.


  • At a glance: A UN response in transition

  • Once one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, needs in Iraq have dropped over the past years
  • Iraq’s government has closed down nearly all its displacement camps, but dozens remain in Kurdish territory
  • The UN says it’s time for Iraqi and Kurdish officials to take over the aid response
  • UN aid hasn’t ended completely, and major NGOs continue to work
  • Some aid groups worry the UN’s transition is too fast, leaving gaps for vulnerable groups


Starting from 2023, it has “shifted its focus from a humanitarian-only response plan to a development-focused approach, as this will better serve the needs of all citizens in Iraq, not just those affected by [the crisis caused by IS]”, according to the UN’s “Iraq Humanitarian Transition Overview”, published in February.


With around 1.2 million people still internally displaced, many of those who have gone back home struggling to get by, and drought and the war in Ukraine pushing up food prices, there’s no question that needs remain. 


Over the past few years, however, the UN has asked for (and received) significantly less funding for the aid it coordinates. Now, it says it’s time for Iraq’s Baghdad-based government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to take greater responsibility in providing for their citizens, with the UN playing more of a supporting role.


Following a year of political stalemate, Baghdad has had a government in place since late October 2022. But with the majority of camps in KRG territory, and ongoing debates between the two governments over budgets and who should take responsibility for aid, there are concerns over who will step up to help the most vulnerable in a country that regularly ranks towards the bottom on global corruption.


What is the humanitarian picture in Iraq?

After years of dictatorship, sanctions, a US-led invasion, and the destruction wrought by IS and the fight against it – entire cities and towns were destroyed – in 2017 the UN described the humanitarian crisis in Iraq as “one of the largest and most volatile in the world”.


By the time Iraq declared the end of its four-year war with the militant group at the end of that year, UN statistics showed that around 11 million people in a country of 37 million (now well over 40 million) needed some sort of humanitarian assistance. 


Millions had been forced to flee bombing, fighting, and sieges, with many forced to take shelter in camps. IS captured, killed, and forced members of the Yazidi religious minority into sexual slavery in a targeted campaign the UN deemed a genocide. The number of people displaced by the fighting between 2014 and 2017 fluctuated as families fled and later returned home, but in total it was around six million.


But that picture has changed in the intervening years. Starting in 2019, Iraq began closing down its camps in an effort to encourage more people to return. Some were also redesignated as “informal camps”, with almost no services. At present, there’s only one official camp for displaced people left in federal Iraq, and 25 in the KRG.


In its 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan for the aid it coordinates across Iraq, the UN said that around 2.5 million people – including 1.1 million children – are still reliant on some form of humanitarian assistance, with 991,000 considered “deeply vulnerable”. 


This includes hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who haven’t been able to go back home. Some IDPs – especially in federal Iraq – have real or perceived affiliations with IS, and their communities don’t want them back. Others have returned and found their properties destroyed, scant job opportunities, or their towns and villages still not cleared of unexploded ordnance. 


There are also around 258,000 Syrian refugees in the country, mostly in the KRG.


There are other reasons, besides the recent conflict, that Iraqis need aid: Two years of drought have contributed to water shortages and rising food prices, and longstanding environmental degradation around the southern city of Basra has contributed to significantly higher poverty levels than in other parts of the country. 


What is the UN changing?

The UN has switched from an approach that focuses on emergency aid to development.

That means that its agencies – and some of their partners – have stopped or will phase out running camps and providing services to most (but not all) IDPs, handing over the responsibility for this to local authorities.


There will also no longer be an inter-agency humanitarian planning process, in which the UN and the NGOs it works with publish an annual assessment of needs – and then appeal to the international community for money to carry out their work.


Last year, they asked for $400 million and received $335 million. In comparison, at the height of Iraq’s crisis, with the media’s focus on the upcoming battle for Mosul, in 2016 the UN appealed for $860.5 million, plus another $284 million to support people fleeing an onslaught from IS. It received $1.9 billion, although that includes money given outside the UN plans.

UN appeals for aid to Iraq

There is also no longer an official “cluster system”, which allows aid groups working on the same type of aid – health or education, for example – to work together, coordinate, and often advocate with authorities as needed.


But there hasn’t been a complete stop to UN aid, and definitely not to NGO aid.


The transition overview notes that in some informal Iraqi camps – where families have not been able to return to their homes and are unlikely to be able to access government services – programmes involving the UN’s migration agency (IOM) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will continue into next year. 


“Based on current funding status, IOM and WHO respectively will be providing primary healthcare services in these locations till mid-2023,” it says.


The last official IDP camp in federal Iraq – Jeddah 5 – which is home to people affiliated with IS and is now used as a supposedly temporary facility to help people transiting back from Syria’s al-Hol camp, will also continue to be managed by the IOM for now, due to security concerns. 


There are other areas where UN agency services will remain or are being phased out over time, but the management of camps and the IDP response by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is drawing to a close. 


Jean-Nicholas Beuze, UNHCR’s representative in Iraq, told The New Humanitarian last summer that Iraqi and Kurdish authorities have had ample time to prepare for this transition, and that it wants Iraqi authorities and the KRG to assume joint responsibility for the country’s humanitarian issues.


“We have to count on the support of the Iraqi authorities themselves,” he said in June, as the details of the shift were still being worked out. “We have been telling the authorities about the transition since before I arrived [in November 2021].” 


“With its financial means, manpower, and know-how, Iraq has the capacity to respond to the needs of its population,” Beuze said later, in November 2022. “Part of the step is trusting that government authorities will take responsibility for these people,” he added, nodding to Iraq’s oil-producing capabilities


Who will fill the gap?

The UN is hoping that the federal government in Iraq and the semi-autonomous authorities in the KRG will take over.


In some cases, that has already happened, with local authorities mostly taking on duties such as the provision of water and trash collection, although there were some early hiccups. Rubbish piled up in Kawergosk camp for Syrian refugees, a 30-minute drive from Erbil, last July, after UNHCR stopped providing that service. A visit to the camp by The New Humanitarian at the end of last year still found heaping piles of burning rubbish. Children ran past with hands over their faces in a vain attempt to avoid the stench of fumes.


Speaking to The New Humanitarian in November, when the transition was still in its infancy, KRG International Advocacy Coordinator Dindar Zebari said the KRG’s usual budget shortages meant it wouldn’t be able to fill the funding gap left by the UN’s policy shift. 


“A request has been made by authorities to our international counterparts and NGOs to continue their financial support for the well-being of refugees and IDPs in the camps,” he said, blaming some of the ongoing pressure on the KRG on the closure of most of the IDP camps in federal Iraq. 


“What we are seeing right now is because of the procedures that Baghdad has started in terms of the closures of the camps, and the decreasing number of international NGOs providing support and assistance,” Zebari said.


While federal policy has been to close camps, the KRG says it supports the voluntary return of refugees and IDPs – at least, while it has the funding, either from the UN or the federal budget. “The KRG has been left alone in this process of accommodating these needs and support for the IDPs and refugees,” Zebari said.


“For the transition to be successful, we need involved leadership of the government. At the moment, it seems that UN agencies are leading – which is counter-productive and a little worrying.”


Awat Mustafa, a representative of the Barzani Charity Foundation (BCF) – an independently funded group aligned with the KRG authorities that carries out work in the KRG’s camps – said his organisation does not expect to be filling the funding gap.


“The KRG spends billions [of Iraqi dinars] on humanitarian aid every year – the federal government should pay [the extra to meet needs in the KRG], he said, declining to provide figures for how much the BCF spent on camps in 2022, nor an estimate of their budget for 2023. 


The office of Iraq’s Ministry of Migration and Displaced declined to respond to multiple requests for comment on how much money it would allocate for humanitarian needs. While Iraq’s Council of Ministers approved a federal budget bill (totalling around $152 billion per year) through 2025, it will still have to pass a parliamentary vote, and the specific breakdown of humanitarian support remains unclear. 


The media office of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani told The New Humanitarian in November that the Iraqi government is developing an integrated plan for IDP camps, but couldn’t confirm what funding is expected to be shared with the KRG.


It’s also not clear exactly who will fill the gap in coordination between NGOs and UN agencies, as aid operations shift away from a UN-coordinated system.


Imrul Islam, advocacy manager in Iraq for the Norwegian Refugee Council – one of the biggest international NGOs operating in the country – told The New Humanitarian that “the challenge with coordination is clear cut: for the transition to be successful, we need involved leadership of the government. At the moment, it seems that UN agencies are leading – which is counter-productive and a little worrying.”


Who risks being left behind?

Major international NGOs say they will continue working in Iraq, with funding coming directly from donors rather than through the yearly UN-led appeals. This may not be the case for local NGOs, which often carry out the lion’s share of work on the ground for the international aid groups.


NGOs have expressed a variety of concerns: about the pace of the transition; over how involved the Iraqi government has been given changing leadership and past political gridlock; and more fundamentally around what – when the transition is complete – this will all mean for particularly vulnerable groups.


“The transition will be truly successful if it is able to catalyse a positive change in the lives of all people across Iraq,” said Islam, of the NRC. “This will depend not just on the breadth of aid coverage, but on the depth of aid impact.”


Islam mentioned access to civil documentation as one specific lingering concern. “Without documents, essential services remain out of reach of marginalised and at-risk groups and often deepen social and economic vulnerability,” he explained.


The UN’s transition overview also mentions a lack of documentation as a “protection concern”, with hundreds of thousands – perhaps as many as a million IDPs and returnees – lacking at least one kind of documentation like a birth certificate or ID card, which were either lost, destroyed, or never issued during conflict.


Without these documents, people struggle to move around the country, enrol in school, get jobs, and access public services. This is of significant concern because, if the transition goes ahead with full force, that’s where most aid will come from in the future.


Samar Abboud, country director for the International Rescue Committee, another large international NGO operating in Iraq, expressed concern about “the swift timeline of the humanitarian transition in Iraq, and the way in which it will affect the most vulnerable Iraqis post-conflict”.


“The humanitarian response in Iraq has largely been run by the international community, with no leadership meaningfully divested to local partners before the transition.”


She expressed particular concerns about the lack of systems in place to support women and girls, minorities, and people with disabilities. Sources were also worried about access to care for gender-based violence and mental health – already hard to find in Iraq.


Among the minority groups most often mentioned are Iraq’s Yazidis, who, after suffering a genocide at the hands of IS, largely fled their historic homeland of Sinjar. Many have yet to return, in part due to a lack of reconstruction and much-needed public services. In a press conference following news of the draft budget, al-Sudani reportedly said money would be allocated towards establishing a fund for rebuilding Sinjar and the surrounding Nineveh Plains.


In March 2021, Iraq’s parliament passed a law that sets up a framework for compensation and rehabilitation for Yazidi survivors, as well as members of other ethno-religious minorities targeted by IS. But it still hasn’t been fully implemented or funded.


The humanitarian response in Iraq has largely been run by the international community, with no leadership meaningfully divested to local partners before the transition, said Kristin Perry, policy and advocacy manager at SEED Foundation, a locally-based NGO that supports Yazidi survivors and vulnerable individuals across the KRG. 


Perry believes the country urgently needs a more comprehensive humanitarian plan of its own making. “We’re looking at a context where recurrent violence has impeded the development of strong, responsive, and accountable institutions and resilient systems,” Perry explained at the end of last year, noting a complete stagnation in terms of people leaving the camps to go back to places like Sinjar.


“The drawdown of the humanitarian response and the dissolution of the cluster coordination system has also been unfolding, until quite recently, against a backdrop of overall political gridlock, which has set the stage for an incredibly difficult transition and increased the likelihood of future instability,” she added.


Feeling more forgotten

For those who need help, change seems to have begun long before the official transition, and it is much more than a policy debate.


Ayaz Dara Ahmed, 28, is a Syrian refugee who has lived in Kawergosk camp for eight years with his parents and two younger siblings.


He was just a few months away from completing his studies in veterinary medicine before the war forced his family to flee Syria. Now, he spends his time volunteering in the camp and treating sick animals.


Aid for Syrian refugees like him comes from a different source than the UN’s annual Iraq appeals, but management of camp services is also changing hands, with the BCF currently in charge. Ayaz has heard about the transition, but he has also seen aid decrease to refugees like him over the past few years, and feels painfully left out of the decision-making.


“The funding started to shift before COVID,” he told The New Humanitarian in February. “During COVID, the NGOs didn’t pay any attention to Syrian refugee camps.”


Iraq is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor does it have a comprehensive legal framework for dealing with refugees. Most of those in the KRG have “humanitarian residence permits”, but they have no pathway to become citizens. “We still don’t have permanent residency in Iraq, nor are we legally identified as refugees,” Ayaz continued.


Since the pandemic, he said, help has become increasingly difficult to find: Fewer people get food aid due to funding cuts, and the UN-funded programme that used to provide his family with fuel allowances has gone too. 


His mother, Nafia, worked in the camp as a nurse before the health centre was closed. With more services now managed by local authorities, residents need to leave the camp to seek treatment. They feel forgotten in the process, and worry about a future in which they have no say. 


“I wish the situation would stabilise in Syria so we could return home, or [that we would] be recognised as legal refugees here so we could begin living our lives,” she said.


The UN argues that emergency aid isn’t meant to continue forever. But as the transition process continues – and Iraq becomes less of a pressing priority for the overstretched humanitarian aid sector – many of the questions around whether regional and federal authorities can and will step up and support those in need remain unanswered.


With reporting support in Iraq from Stella Martany. Edited by Annie Slemrod.

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