U.N.: Iraq crisis most rapidly intensifying humanitarian disaster in recent memory

This map shows displaced persons in northern Iraq due to Islamic State's expansion since June.
This map shows displaced persons in northern Iraq due to Islamic State's expansion since June.

The United Nations refugee agency launched a land, air and sea aid push to address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, one that the organization says is one of the worst it has seen in recent years. About 100 tons of supplies landed in Irbil on Wednesday, which included tents, sheets and other supplies.

Although situations in Syria, Congo and other parts of the world have been extremely grim and have had higher numbers of refugees, what about the current situation in Iraq made it require such an urgent need for aid? Here's a look.


A general view of the Yazidi refugee camp near the Iraqi border crossing of Zakho, northern Iraq. (EPA)

The rapid rise of the Islamic State

The rate at which the situation in Iraq has deteriorated is the largest reason why it is being called one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent years. Let's compare it with Syria. While the climate there is extremely volatile, it has been deteriorating for more than three years. In comparison, conflicts in Iraq mostly started this year, and the worst of it commenced in June, when the Islamic State (then ISIS) took Mosul. Today, the number of displaced Iraqis is at 1.5 million — small in comparison to Syria's 6.5 million — but almost 600,000 of them fled their homes in the past two months. Still, many were able to find homes and shelters in communities around northern Iraq.

In early August, Islamic State moved farther north. When the militant group took the northern region in and around the town of Sinjar, where many Yazidis live, more than 200,000 had to flee. Many were stranded on Mount Sinjar with dwindling resources, causing the Obama administration to launch airstrikes against the Islamic State.

After U.S. airstrikes, Yazidis were able to escape the mountainous region, which led to a rapid influx of civilians to areas that were already providing shelter to hundreds of thousands of previously displaced persons. This latest batch of refugees is what led UNHCR to see this as one of the worst emergency crises in this decade.


A refugee woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, sits with a child inside a tent at Nowruz refugee camp in Qamishli. (Rodi Said/Reuters)

Instability in the region

The other factor that makes this conflict increasingly difficult is the widespread instability in neighboring countries. Jordan and Turkey were already hosting huge amounts of refugees. Still, some refugees had no choice but to leave Iraq. Ariane Rummery, a UNHCR communications officer, said that "some people are actually seeking refuge in Syria, which has been so wrecked.”

The current state of Iraq and the quick escalation in aid the region needs has made this the worst crisis Rummery has seen in the past 10 years. She said there have been other extremely difficult disasters, like the 2009 Swat Valley operations that displaced two million people in Pakistan. But at this magnitude, only one event matches its scope, and that's the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in Iraq.

UNHCR's efforts

Although the UNHCR has been providing aid to the region for many months, the organization commenced their largest aid operation Wednesday after declaring an emergency Tuesday. The first phase of the process will include providing basic supplies and addressing urgent needs. "This is just the beginning," Rummery said. "We need to put in water and sanitation, you need to plan the camp, put in lighting. We’re working in concert with U.N. sister operations and other European organizations."

The help isn't limited to refugee camps, as the majority of people are staying in communities that are willing to host them. Those places also receive supplies from the U.N. The organization is also working on helping those who need legal help, as many left their documentation and identification behind.

There are about 12 sites in northern Iraq that are providing shelter for about 140,000 people, but due to continued unrest, the demand could increase very quickly.

Swati Sharma is a digital editor for World and National Security and previously worked at the Boston Globe.
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