As a member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the Parliament’s Iraq and Arabian Delegations, you can imagine the situation in Iraq has been centre stage of my workload lately. I despair that the real story, and the causes of events, are being ignored in the ever more dramatic yet context-free day-to-day reportage of the military campaign against ISIS, the siege of Kobane or whatever events (all of them important, don’t get me wrong) are being covered. But if you are looking for analysis of how this state of affairs came to be or how we might even start to help you’ll be left wanting.
But it is not that the information is not out there, and publicly available. My delegation heard this week from a series of charities, refugee organisations and others how the humanitarian disaster is bleak and getting worse. In a land where so many are so desperate, so frightened and afraid, it is no wonder that so many are turning to any source of stability, however unpalatable.
Iraq has, still, an enormous level of religious and ethnic diversity: the history of many minority groups in the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’ goes back for thousands of years. Many areas, home to these minorities since before the birth of written history, are now almost deserted.
The rights of these groups, already precarious under a sort of democratic but deeply sectarian Iraqi Government that has systematically failed to uphold protections for its minority communities, have been greatly worsened as central authority has broken down altogether and that vacuum been filled by various extremist groups, ISIS being just one of many.
The scale of the resulting refugee crisis is almost beyond comprehension. The UN estimates that 2 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the start of the year, half of them in just the last three months. They join a further 1.2 million ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs) already uprooted, and a sizeable number of refugees from neighbouring Syria.
Mr Eugenio Ambrosi of the International Organisation for Migration warns that an estimated 5.2 million people – roughly equivalent to the whole population of Scotland – are in urgent need of our help. They include not just refugees and IDPs, but also local communities struggling to cope with the strain of their vast refugee populations, all of which require food, shelter and social services.
Such is the strain on local communities that a great deal of displaced persons have had to move repeatedly, barely settling in one place before having to migrate further. A quarter of IDPs are living in ‘critical’ conditions without minimum living standards; less than half have access to healthcare, contributing to a high rate of chronic disease; and two-thirds of children have no access to education.
Iraqi authorities are talking of the risk of “losing a generation or more” in a crisis whose effects will be felt for decades to come.
We can help. Again and again I hear humanitarian organisations talking about the same logistical problems. They are underfunded – of the US$2.2 billion of funding earmarked for the crisis for the 2014-15 period, only $160 million of that pledged by non-government donors has been received. They demand a greater level of EU and UN coordination, pointing out that those states that do not want to take part in the military coalition can still contribute to humanitarian efforts.
It is also important that we provide aid for all of those affected by the conflict in Iraq. At least a further 193,000 Iraqi refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Syria are among those who must not be forgotten in any attempt to provide help. Areas under ISIS control have not received any humanitarian aid at all. The UNHCR estimates it has been able to provide 559,000 internally displaced persons with sufficient shelter and non-food aid to prepare for the coming winter: compared with the 2 million displaced in 2014 so far, this is not very many.
Above all, given the humanitarian crisis on our hands, it is imperative that EU member states pay no heed to any suggestions, often voiced by the far right, that asylum seekers should be turned away or refugees returned to Iraq. The country is overburdened and cannot cope with the strain of those refugees and IDPs it already has. To send back those who arrive at our shores, in the words of Vincent de Longeaux of the ‘Fraternity in Iraq’ association, would be tantamount to sending them to their deaths.
Equally, we cannot pretend that those already receiving aid in Iraq are now safe, because they decidedly are not. They need our continued support, even beyond this current conflict.
The European Union, and the Western world as a whole, cannot talk the talk when it comes to military intervention while neglecting the equally pressing humanitarian situation, which is actually now the root cause of the growth in extremism. We have a duty to act, and to provide for the people of Iraq every bit as much as we take away from their oppressors in ISIS and other extremist groups.