With conflict looming around the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, Andre Laperriere, UNICEF coordinator for northern Iraq, told IRIN from Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey on Tuesday that the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) on the move in the region could rapidly escalate.
According to UNICEF, in the first 48 hours of the conflict, about 600,000 Iraqis left their homes to escape possible fighting. Two-thirds of these had now returned home. Laperriere said local authorities and agencies had coped well with the larger-than-expected numbers, but the crisis was by no means over, with concerns rising over insufficient supplies in the region. “I feel that the system is stretched to the limit and can’t continue like that for very long. It’s like you are running an engine at 150 percent of its capacity - you can’t do that very long.”
He predicted that hundreds of thousands of residents from the two cities that lie just outside the Kurdish-controlled northern region, could flee north into Kurdish-controlled areas if a safe route were opened. At present, the roads leading north from these cities are closed and bridges mined by combatants. But with 209,000 IDPs still on the move in the north, 75 percent of them in the Dahuk region, Laperriere said it was important to get these people back to their homes before the second wave arrived, which could be within a few days.
Laurent Sellay, the deputy head of Taskforce Iraq for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told IRIN from Geneva that the organisation was closely monitoring what was happening to IDPs in the region. However, at this stage there was nothing that had required a major humanitarian response., but the situation could change quickly.
Most of those who had initially fled their homes had now returned and the situation was largely under control at the moment. Around 5,000 IDPs have moved from government-controlled areas to the north and have been registered by the authorities in northern Iraq. Most had been accommodated in public buildings such as schools and mosques.
Of equal concern were the dwindling food and medical resources people in the north were surviving on. An initial buffer of resources had been put in place to last a month. “Now we are already 10 days down the road, and we have more IDPs than we expected, so in another two or three weeks, then we will begin to have severe problems.” Laperriere said, adding that bureaucratic delays in getting supplies to Iraq had been very frustrating, and he foresaw unnecessary suffering for any new IDP influx if there were no new supplies.
Justin Frewen, an information officer with the United Nations Office For Project Services (UNOPS), said it was difficult to get exact figures on the movement of IDPs in the north as there had been a great deal of migration back and forth between villages and the cities. Many IDPs who left the major urban areas of Arbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dahuk had already returned to these cities. What would happen in the future, however, as the conflict continued and spread, was very difficult to predict, he stressed.
UNOPS, together with the Joint Humanitarian Information Centre, have begun a comprehensive rapid-assessment survey of all new IDPs who had moved since the current conflict began in all three northern governorates. This assessment should be completed within a week and would provide greater detail on the overall situation, he said.
While gross UN planning estimates had estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 IDPs, Frewen said it had to be remembered that the north had been less involved in the conflict, and this had so far been reflected in lower numbers.
He said a major problem facing the IDPs was a lack of fuel, such as kerosene for heating and cooking. In addition, the weather had been very cold recently and many IDP had contracted respiratory tract infections. This had been further aggravated by the fuel shortage and extremely high prices because of the conflict. UNOPS-IDP was therefore distributing fuel to many IDP families. Shortages of household items such as blankets, medicines, drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities were additional problems being addressed by UN agencies where security allowed, Frewen said.