Column: Iraq crisis, Part 2 — Displaced children need help

War scars children, robs them of their childhood and educational opportunities, and exposes them to communicable diseases. However, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are doing what they can to protect and nurture children in war-torn Iraq. 

Last summer, the Islamic State, a transnational jihadist movement, launched a lightening offensive, capturing large swaths of territory in Iraq. And most Iraqis were caught off guard, forcing many to flee to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. 

The Islamic State's campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder has generated a massive humanitarian crisis that threatens to overwhelm NGOs. "We simply do not have enough money to support everyone," Jesse Thomson, director of CARE Canada's Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Team, said in an email. 

The basic needs of many displaced Iraqis simply aren't being met. "When our team visited the camps, we saw a lot of children wearing plastic sandals, T-shirts and shorts," Thomson said. "When driving through Dohuk and other towns, you can also see a lot of people living in unfinished buildings," she said. "Some of them do not even have plastic sheets to protect themselves from the cold." 

According to Thomson, "the environment the displaced Iraqis are living in is terribly harsh, especially for children, women, elderly and people with disabilities." For example, with only tents for shelter from the winter cold, it's only a matter of time before many the IDPs get sick. "Many people -- especially children -- are suffering from respiratory diseases," she said. 

According to UNICEF's top official in Iraq, the ongoing conflict is taking a heavy toll on the country's displaced children. "The future of children in Iraq is uncertain," Colin MacInnes, the UNICEF representative for Iraq, said in an email. 

"Continuing violence in the country has meant that more than one million children who have been forced from their homes are still out of school, and many are routinely subjected to violence and violations of their rights," said the Nova Scotia-born MacInnes, who is currently stationed in Erbil, Iraq. Living in refugee camps is tough on children. 

"I think the health issues are probably the most critical in some ways, because there is diarrhea, colds and pneumonia," said Dave Toycen, head of World Vision Canada, in a telephone interview from Erbil. "And especially with the really young children, they are really vulnerable and can be profoundly affected and even die as a result of conditions like that," Toycen warned. 

The conflict in Iraq has left many families broken. "Many families have fled without a male head of the household," Thomson said. "The men have either gone missing, or were captured or killed." In addition, Thomson reported that "many (displaced) women have experienced sexual and other forms of severe physical violence." 

As a result, these women are fearful and don't want to leave their tents unescorted. "There's no question that numbers of the children have been traumatized by either what they've seen, or what directly happened to them," Toycen said. The psychological wounds suffered by the IDPs are too much for humanitarian NGOs to handle. "The existing services are not sufficient to cope with the magnitude and the severity of the survivors' trauma," Thomson said. 

"For children, the risk of psychosocial distress is particularly high." Since the onset of the crisis, UNICEF has supported psychosocial services for approximately 34,284 children. According to CARE's Jesse Thomson, "75% of the displaced children are still out of school, so they spend their days in the camps, missing out on vital education." She said that there are few constructive activities "to take their minds off the horrors they have lived through." 

Displaced children are not currently able to access schools in the Kurdish region, agreed Guy DesAulniers, Development and Peace's emergency programs officer for Iraq. The NGO is the Canadian branch of Cartis Internationalis, the humanitarian agency of the Roman Catholic Church. "Even if this situation changes, most do not speak or understand Kurdish, and the sheer number of IDP children would overwhelm the school system," DesAulniers said in an email.

According to UNICEF's January 2015 status report, 150 classroom tents were dispatched to Anbar Governorate, which allowed 12,390 children to return to school. And the NGO reported that 95,569 displaced children have been given access to education since the crisis began in 2014. 

However, much more still needs to be done to get IDP kids into school and prevent the creation of an uneducated lost generation. According to UNICEF, "little more than 9% of the IDP population are in IDP camps, and that the educational needs of the majority of the IDP children within host communities are yet to be addressed." 

Refugee camps are definitely not kid-friendly places to live. "There is hardly any space for them to play, and mothers do not dare to let their children wander around the camps," Thomson said. Those problems demonstrate the need "to establish child-friendly spaces to provide psychosocial, recreational, and non-formal education activities for out-of-camp IDP children," DesAulniers said. 

All the humanitarian NGOs interviewed are supporting the establishment of child-friendly spaces. But is it possible to shield kids from the worst of war's horrors? Tragically, the answer is no. That is why UNICEF reports grave violations of child rights to the United Nations Security Council. 

"These reports help advocate with groups to cease these violations, and hold people accountable for their acts of violence against children," MacInnes said. UNICEF depends on donations from private organizations, individuals and donor nations to fund humanitarian operations in northern Iraq. As the crisis drags on and the displaced population swells, funds are running out fast. 

"On 31 March, UNICEF and the overall humanitarian response in Iraq will reach a fiscal cliff," MacInnes warned. "Without immediate additional funding, every gain made in the last six months is in danger of being undone, as key priorities will be unfunded and humanitarian standards will not be met." 

Until the Islamic State is defeated and displaced families can return home, humanitarian NGOs serving the children of Iraq will require the support of the community of nations. 

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.

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