Deeply concerned over the impact of the war, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)in Turkey is boosting its regional efforts to safeguard the welfare of women and children both along the border, in the event of a possible refugee influx, as well as inside northern Iraq.
"We have people and supplies on the ground in both southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq to ensure that children and women get the help they need if there is a crisis," the UNICEF representative for Turkey, Edmond McLoughney, told IRIN in the capital, Ankara, adding that the agency was also preparing to help in a post-conflict Iraq.
According to the agency, more than one million Iraqi children under the age of five are malnourished. In 2001, more than one in 10 of the children in northern Iraq were suffering from chronic malnutrition.
"There is nobody more vulnerable than a child in a war situation. We must do everything we can to pull them through this safely," McLoughney said. "Our experience tells us that if people do flee to the border to escape the conflict, they will need all the basics for survival: food, water, shelter, and health care."
In addition to its office in Ankara, UNICEF has an emergency operational presence in the town of Silopi, 15 km from the Iraqi border, as well as the eastern city of Diyarbakir, 315 km from the Turkish-Iraqi frontier. The agency is sharing a warehouse with the World Food Programme in the eastern city of Gaziantep, about 600 km southwest of Diyarbakir, where winter clothing for up to 4,000 children has been pre-positioned in the event of a refugee crisis.
But UNICEF's operations are not limited to dealing with a possible influx. The agency is also busy pre-positioning supplies to be brought into northern Iraq once the conflict is over, including water pumps, mattresses and shelter equipment. At present, UNICEF has approximately US $5 million worth of goods waiting in bonded warehousing in the southeastern Turkish port of Mersin, 850 km southwest of Silopi, with another $10 million en route from Copenhagen.
These relief supplies will be used to complement some $11 million-worth already in place in northern Iraq as part of its contingency and ongoing operations there. At present, there are close to 350 local staff on the ground in the governorates of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah, who are in daily communication with international staff members evacuated from the country earlier this month.
Working to keep UNICEF programmes operational, they are continuing to work with local authorities and contractors in such sectors as water and sanitation, primary health care and basic education. Additionally, staff members are focusing on the movements of internally displaced persons - monitoring and tracking where they are, what they need, and whether and when they plan to return home.
McLoughney noted that while there had been reports of up to 600,000 people on the move in the area last week, latest reports from UNICEF national staff on the ground had suggested that people were beginning to go back to the cities. Moreover, at the moment, he did not foresee a repeat of 1991, when an estimated 500,000 Iraqi Kurds fled across Turkey's 331-km border with Iraq. "We know that the situation could change anytime, and within a matter of hours. We are continuing our preparations to make sure that children and women get the help they need if there is a crisis," he said.
Meanwhile, Andre Laperriere, the head of UNICEF for northern Iraq, told IRIN in Ankara that he was worried about the effects of a prolonged war. "What worries us is that the infrastructure in northern Iraq is stretched to the maximum - in fact beyond the maximum. It coped magnificently with more than 500,000 people on the move over the last week," he explained, but "like any machine, it can only go at top speed for so long. If this crisis drags on, that infrastructure may crumble under pressure."
And while delighted that people were reportedly continuing to go home, calling it the best place for any child, the UNICEF official was concerned that there might be a second wave of IDPs from Kirkuk and Mosul if the checkpoints on the roads leading north were removed. "We fear that the infrastructure may not be able to rise to this additional challenge, when it is already overstretched."
Yet another concern was that of weather, noting those who left their homes faced sub-zero temperatures, freezing rain, mud, and untreated water - all of which pose a threat to the health and wellbeing of their children. "Those Iraqi children who were vulnerable before, such as street children, orphans and the poorest, are at even greater risk now," Laperriere said. "That is why our staff are there, and why they are working as normally as possible to help all Iraqi children affected by the current crisis."
Over recent years, UNICEF has trained and equipped local authorities in this Kurdish-speaking area, providing 1,200 cranes, drilling rigs, trucks and other essentials for the water and sanitation programme, as well as training thousands of civil servants in such sectors as water management, health infrastructure and education systems. This work in the current crisis continues - as far as possible - so that the gains of recent years will not be lost.
As a result of concerted efforts by local authorities, UN agencies, NGOs and communities to improve health care, increase immunisation rates and provide clean water and proper sanitation, child mortality and morbidity have been cut by around 50 percent in northern Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991.