Column: Iraqi crisis, Part 1 — Don't forget about refugees
Canada and its allies are at war with the Islamic State, a jihadist army that has captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria and is ethnically cleansing entire regions of ancient communities.
Week after week, the Islamic State commits unspeakable atrocities, capturing news headlines and sparking the righteous anger of many Canadians. Clearly, the Islamic State is a dangerous, destabilizing force that must be defeated by the community of nations.
However, the world must also take action on the humanitarian front, increasing assistance to those Iraqis who have had to run for their lives.
According to UNICEF's January 2015 status report, "over 2.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are displaced across 2,412 locations in Iraq."
In a diverse media landscape that bombards people with vast amounts of information, it's difficult to hold the attention of Canadians, even when it comes to the compelling humanitarian crisis in Iraq.
However, there are good reasons for Canadians to stay tuned to the issue, according to Dave Toycen, the soon-to-retire president of World Vision Canada, a Christian humanitarian organization.
"I think it's really important for Canadians to stay engaged, because it appears we are going to continue to have some of these problems, particularly in these very focused violent contexts," Toycen said in a telephone interview from Erbil, the capital city of the Erbil Governorate, which is located in the semi-autonomous, Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.
"It is women and children who are suffering the most in this kind of environment," he said. "They really are victims of decisions being taken by others that are making a nightmare out of their lives."
During his time in Iraq, the World Vision Canada boss met with displaced Iraqis as well as Syrian refugees who fled the bloody civil war in their homeland. And he said that the refugee and IDP populations in Kurdistan are diverse, and many among them have lost their homes and/or loved ones to the violence.
"Civilians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds have been displaced by the violence, including minority communities such as Yezidis, Christians and Turkomen, as well as Shiites and Sunnis," agreed a representative of Development and Peace, the Canadian branch of Cartias Internationalis, which is the humanitarian agency of the Roman Catholic Church.
"In addition to internally displaced persons, Iraq is host to approximately 230,000 Syrian refugees who fled the conflict in Syria, mainly in the Kurdistan region," said Guy DesAulniers, Development and Peace's emergency programs officer for Iraq, in an email.
According to the United Nations, there are a total of 5.2 five million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Iraq. And Development and Peace reports that nearly half of those in urgent need of humanitarian assistance are children.
Hard winter and crowded camps
It's been a long, hard winter for the refugees and IDPs living in tents. Toycen pointed out that temperatures in Kurdistan fall into the single digits during the dead of winter, and it snows in some areas, making life "very uncomfortable."
According to Development and Peace's DesAulniers, "some 80,000 internally displaced families are in urgent need of winterization assistance."
"One of the other realities, especially for those in (refugee) camps, is some of the camps are just overflowing," Toycen said. "There are still about 200 families a day coming in. That's 1,200 people a day."
"These are people, in many cases, who had decent homes and good jobs," Toycen noted. "They are not used to living in these kinds of environments."
"The condition of the internally displaced population remains dire," agreed Jessie Thomson, director of CARE Canada's Humanitarian Assistance and Emergency Team. "Around half of the displaced population is living in camps," Thomson said in an email.
The Kurds and humanitarian NGOs are doing their best to shelter the growing population of displaced people in northern Iraq. "Dozens of camps were built up over the last weeks and months to accommodate hundreds of thousands who fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing," Thomson said.
However, she described the situation in the camps as "bleak," especially in the newer camps, which lack basic services. "The needs for better water, sanitation and hygiene support is massive," Thomson said.
Life is no easier for displaced people living outside of the camp system.
"For those families still living in makeshift shelters or in unfinished buildings, scattered in many different, mostly urban locations, the situation is even more difficult," Thomson said. "Many of them do not know what services are available; have to walk for hours to reach proper health and medical care and have difficulties protecting themselves from the cold."
Hunger is another challenge in war-torn Iraq.
"Food insecurity is expected to deepen, with an estimated 2.8 million people currently in need of food assistance," DesAulniers said. "Around 73% of IDPs surveyed identified food as their primary concern."
Impact on host communities
The ongoing conflict and constant influx of people displaced by the fighting is placing a heavy burden on Kurdistan.
"Along with displaced populations, host communities are affected by armed conflict and by the impact of refugees and IDPs seeking shelter in their villages and towns," DesAulniers said.
"The local communities have been incredibly welcoming," Thomson said. "They have allowed the displaced to stay in their homes, have donated food and clothes."
However, hosting a large IDP population is not sustainable over the long term. "The longer the displaced have to stay in the camps and settlements, the more difficult it becomes to provide them with shelter, food and medical assistance," Thomson said.
According to the CARE official, "the population of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has increased by almost a third, placing strains on the local economy and making it difficult -- for both internally displaced and the local community -- to meet their basic needs."
Based on his four decades of humanitarian work, what does Toycen think will happen to the refugees and IDPs in Kurdistan? Will they ever be able to go home again?
"I want to be positive about it," Toycen replied. "My view would be that at some point, there will be an opportunity to return."
"Will it be in the next few months? Probably not," Toycen said. "Although I'm always open to a miracle."
"We need to start preparing for the next winter," Thomson said, "because these families will most likely not be able to return home any time soon."
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.