Two weeks ago the Iraqi national soccer team won the Asian Cup, giving the people of the conflict-torn country something to cheer about. But that glimmer of hope for the future of this nation continues to be clouded by the daily carnage. Car bombs, roadside bombs, suicide bombs, assassinations, sniper attacks, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, torture, and sectarian killings have become daily occurrences in many of Iraq’s cities. Hope is fading even further away as the instability and conflict are overshadowing and an emerging humanitarian crisis affecting the people of Iraq.
If we believe the modern truism that poverty and misery breeds insecurity, we have good reason to be fearful for the future of Iraq. While armed violence continues to be the greatest threat facing Iraqis, the population is also experiencing another kind of crisis of an alarming scale and severity. In a report released last week by Oxfam and the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI), the depth of the current humanitarian crisis in Iraq was revealed, and the statistics are frightening.
Imagine Melbourne and Sydney without water or hospitals – in Iraq, 8 million people are in desperate need of food, shelter, water and sanitation and health services. It is estimated that 43% of Iraqis live in ‘absolute poverty’, while child malnutrition rates went from 19% in the pre-invasion time to current 28%.
Over two million people – more than the entire population of South Australia – are displaced within the country, and these internally uprooted people are particularly hard hit – they are running out of options and coping mechanisms. There are also more than two million refugees who have fled to Syria and Jordan. Iraq has become a humanitarian tragedy of immense proportions.
And then there is the ‘brain drain’. At the end of 2006, perhaps 40% of professionals had left the country, further stretching already inadequate public services. Thousands of medical staff, teachers, water engineers and other professionals were forced to leave their homeland, searching for safety and security.
Although responding to the needs of the affected population is extremely challenging, given the lack of security and of competent national institutions, Oxfam and NCCI believe that more should be done. The government of Iraq should give out more food parcels, provide emergency cash payments in more regions, decentralise decision-making and support civil society groups providing assistance. The international donors and UN agencies should intensify their efforts to coordinate, fund and deliver emergency aid. These measures will by no means transform the plight of Iraqis in the long run but they can help alleviate their immediate suffering – critical work if we are serious about human rights and the future stability of Iraq.
However, while international donors are spending billions aiming to rebuild unstable Iraq, many Iraqis are ‘getting the picture’ and fleeing for their lives. Donors, the UN, and the Government of Iraq need to acknowledge the impact this war is having on ordinary people and do more to support them.
All the key 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.
Aid agencies in Iraq operate under constant threats of violence. Oxfam itself had to withdraw its staff from Iraq in 2003 and now operates exclusively through a network of partner organizations. Aid agencies are also acutely aware that they must be independent from the armed forces in order to keep their staff safe.
It is clear that aid needs to be provided from impartial and independent sources. The funding of humanitarian agencies by those members of the Multi-National Force in Iraq (MNF-I) could blur distinctions between military and humanitarian actors and seriously hamper aid efforts. There is therefore a particular onus on donors from countries which do not have troops there, such as Belgium, Canada and France,
to name a few, to agree to increase their budgets for humanitarian action in Iraq.
Over the long term there is an overwhelming need to demilitarise Iraq. A key stepping stone in this process is ensuring that food, water, sanitation, health services and shelter are delivered independent of military objectives. Food must not be won by the barrel of a gun – it is a basic human right.
Oxfam believes that bringing an end to war and civil strife in Iraq must be the overriding priority for the national government and for the international community. However, it is crucial that this effort is matched by turning the attention and resources to meeting the daily humanitarian needs of Iraqis who are fleeing in their millions. Otherwise Iraq risks becoming a safe, but empty country.
Published in the Canberra Times on 14 August and on ABC Online on the 15 August 2007.