Eight Million Iraqis Need Emergency Aid

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Marchers in London on February 24th demanding the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq
Marchers in London on February 24th demanding the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq

Armed violence is the greatest threat facing Iraqis, but the population is also experiencing another kind of crisis of an alarming scale and severity, says a report by Oxfam and Iraqi aid agencies.

Eight million people are in urgent need of emergency aid; that figure includes over two million who are displaced within the country, and more than two million refugees, says the report ‘Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq’.

Oxfam said: ‘Many more are living in poverty, without basic services, and increasingly threatened by disease and malnutrition.

‘Despite the constraints imposed by violence, the government of Iraq, the United Nations, and international donors can do more to deliver humanitarian assistance to reduce unnecessary suffering.

‘If people’s basic needs are left unattended, this will only serve to further destabilise the country.’

The report’s Executive Summary says:

‘Up to eight million people are now in need of emergency assistance. This figure includes:

• four million people who are ‘food-insecure and in dire need of different types of humanitarian assistance’

• more than two million displaced people inside Iraq

• over two million Iraqis in neighbouring countries, mainly Syria and Jordan, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.’

It adds: ‘Although responding to those needs is extremely challenging, given the lack of security and of competent national institutions, Oxfam and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI) believe that more could be done.

‘The government of Iraq could extend the distribution of food parcels, widen the coverage of emergency cash payments, decentralise decision-making and support civil society groups providing assistance.

‘The international donors and UN agencies could intensify their efforts to coordinate, fund and deliver emergency aid.

‘These measures will not transform the plight of Iraqis but they can help alleviate their suffering.

‘The paper focuses on needs inside the country, which are less visible, and does not refer in detail to the refugees in neighbouring countries.

‘Iraqis are suffering from a growing lack of food, shelter, water and sanitation, health care, education, and employment.

‘Of the four million Iraqis who are dependent on food assistance, only 60 per cent currently have access to rations through the government-run Public Distribution System (PDS), down from 96 per cent in 2004.

‘Forty-three per cent of Iraqis suffer from “absolute poverty”.

‘According to some estimates, over half the population are now without work.

‘Children are hit the hardest by the decline in living standards.

‘Child malnutrition rates have risen from 19 per cent before the US-led invasion in 2003 to 28 per cent now.

‘The situation is particularly hard for families driven from their homes by violence.

‘The two million internally displaced people (IDPs) have no incomes to rely on and are running out of coping mechanisms.

‘In 2006, 32 per cent of IDPs had no access to PDS food rations, while 51 per cent reported receiving food rations only sometimes.

‘The number of Iraqis without access to adequate water supplies has risen from 50 per cent to 70 per cent since 2003, while 80 per cent lack effective sanitation.

‘The “brain drain” that Iraq is experiencing is further stretching already inadequate public services, as thousands of medical staff, teachers, water engineers, and other professionals are forced to leave the country.

‘At the end of 2006, perhaps 40 per cent had left already.

‘The people of Iraq have a right, enshrined in international law, to material assistance that meets their humanitarian needs, and to protection, but this right is being neglected.

‘The government of Iraq, international donors, and the United Nations (UN) system have been focused on reconstruction, development, and building political institutions, and have overlooked the harsh daily struggle for survival now faced by many.

‘All these actors have a moral, political, and in the case of the government, legal obligation to protect ordinary Iraqis caught up in the conflict.

‘They also have a responsibility to find ways to secure the right conditions for the delivery of assistance, both where conflict is intense and in less insecure parts of the country to which many people have fled.

‘The primary duty-bearer for the provision of basic services remains the national government, which must work to overcome the extensive obstacles that hamper its operations at central and local level.

‘Oxfam and the NCCI believe that political will must be found to improve the emergency support system for the poorest citizens, including the internally displaced.

‘The government should start with the decentralisation of the delivery of assistance.

‘This would include giving power to local authorities to quality-check and distribute emergency supplies within their own governorates, together with a more extensive system of warehouse storage for supplies throughout Iraq.

‘Establishing a proper legal framework for civil-society organisations would greatly assist non-government relief efforts by giving them the legal authority to operate in Iraq.

‘The expansion of the Public Distribution System (PDS) for foodstuffs, including the establishment of a temporary PDS identity-card system for IDPs, is also priority.

‘As is the extension of the programme of emergency cash allowances to households headed by widows, which should be increased from $100 per month so that it is closer to the average monthly wage of $200, and expanded to include other vulnerable groups.

‘A $200 monthly payment to one million households, would cost $2.4bn per year, which is within the country’s financial capacity.

‘Foreign governments with capacity and influence in Iraq, including the USA and the UK, must provide advice and technical assistance to Iraqi government ministries to implement these policies and supply basic services,

‘The main challenges both to the livelihoods of Iraqis and to the delivery of humanitarian assistance are the ongoing violence and insecurity.

‘Political solutions to the conflict must be found as soon as possible, but in the meantime all armed groups, including the Iraqi security forces, the Multi-National Force in Iraq (MNF-I), local militia, and insurgents, should not harm civilian life, property, or infrastructure, and should respect the population’s right to assistance, in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.

‘Whilst indiscriminate, and often targeted, violence has greatly reduced the capacity of Iraqi civil-society organisations and NGOs, international NGOs (INGOs), the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement, and UN agencies to access the needy civilian population, this has not prevented many of these organisations from working with Iraqi communities to find creative ways to adapt to the constraints and continue to maintain a presence in Iraq.

‘There are 80 independent INGOs still engaged with Iraq, including NCCI members, and 45 of these have existing or potential emergency response programmes.

‘Some have national staff running offices inside the country, with management based in a different country, commonly Jordan. Others fund and advise autonomous local Iraqi NGOs.

‘These methods of working in highly insecure environments are often known as ‘remote programming’.

‘By adopting such approaches, NGOs are the main implementers of UN and other humanitarian programmes inside Iraq.’

The report added: ‘The publication in April 2007 of a “strategic framework” for a coordinated humanitarian response in Iraq is a step in the right direction, as is the decision of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in July 2007 to ask donors to double its budget for work with Iraqi refugees and the internally displaced to $123m.’