Refugee camp in northern Iraq bursting at the seams

Deep wrinkles appear on the forehead of the European Union commissioner as we descend over northern Iraq. As he looks out of the window, a hilly, ocher landscape passes by below. Christos Stylianides leans over a pile of aid-project reports. The 56-year-old has just promised Iraq an additional 200 million euros ($223 million), but he already knows that it will not be enough. 

"This is not a regional or even a European challenge, it is a global challenge," says the commissioner as he steps into one of the armor-plated SUVs waiting on the runway. The convoy then speeds off to the Debaga refugee camp in 50 degree temperatures (120 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Stylianides says that there have actually been positive developments: The "Islamic State" (IS) terror organization is being pushed back every day. "But the fight for Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, will set off a huge wave of refugees," and he fears that, "more than 1 million people may flee." Some 27,000 people are already at the Debaga camp. It is hopelessly overcrowded, especially the section where new arrivals are screened for possible terrorist ties. Hundreds of men stand behind a wall of razor wire waiting to enter. 

Initially people were fleeing IS; now they are coming from areas that have been under the control of the terrorist organization for almost two years. Vian Rasheed Younis, the Kurdish regional government's representative at the camp, defends the strict control measures: "We have had some bad experiences here. A month ago a family arrived and then one of its members blew himself up. Twelve people were injured. The question is always, who is a refugee, and who is a terrorist?" 

An old woman pushes through the crowd of security agents and refugees, making her way to the EU delegation. Crying, she falls into Stylianides' arms. "There are too many people here. The lines for food are just too long, sometimes I cannot even get anything," she laments as she kisses the tall Cypriot on the cheek. "It pains one's soul to see these peoples' suffering. But I am confident that our presence here will restore their hope and dignity," says the EU commissioner. 

However, hope and dignity seem to carry a hefty price tag in northern Iraq. Aid workers are in agreement: The camp has to be enlarged. But public property is not available and Kurdish owners of private parcels are demanding exorbitant prices. A United Nations representative explains that he has a fundamental problem with paying up to 1 million euros a year in rent. 

Representatives from the Kurdish regional government have also rejected the practice. Stylianides is attempting to negotiate a deal in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of the same name. Perhaps there are some public grounds upon which the camp could be expanded. The commissioner meets with President Masoud Barzani and Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. 

Minister Bakir sums up the situation thus: "We have done all we could, but now we need help from the EU. Our aid grants have been slashed by Baghdad, oil prices are in the basement and the war against the Islamists is expensive. On top of that we are paying about 150 million euros a month to care for inner-Iraqi and Syrian refugees here in the North. We can't do any more." 

Minister Bakir also knows exactly how to add a sense of urgency to his demands for more money: "If you take care of refugees here, they won't come knocking on Europe's door. But if we fail to solve the fundamental problem here, a wave of refugees will wash over Europe." EU Commissioner Stylianides says that the people must be given hope in order to keep that from happening. 

"We have the opportunity to create a new Iraq. IS will be defeated on the battlefield, but we also have to remove the spell of their poisonous ideology," he says. The biggest challenge will be to reunify the country in the wake of the ethnic cleansing that took place in Mosul. After Fallujah was freed from the grip of the jihadis, revenge was meted out on Sunnis there. 

That must be avoided in Mosul, for instance through educational projects. Stylianides is convinced that informal school lessons in the camps are just as important as food and shelter. Mixed classrooms could help overcome the religious and ethnic divisions in the country and persuade parents that their children actually have a future in Iraq. 

For that to happen, other actors, such as the Gulf States, have to get involved. "The situation here is so desperate that our willingness and capacity to help are being overtaxed. We need a global answer for Iraq," explains the EU commissioner. 

by Georg Matthes

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