From the plane, the alternation of seasons is evident: what three months ago was a large expanse of arid, dusty yellow land, now is dark brown and punctuated by moist green patches. After a fist visit in September, my colleague Khairun and I are back in Iraqi Kurdistan (officially known as Kurdistan Region of Iraq, or KRI) to assess the human rights situation of both Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis.
As a result of the advance of ISIS and of the violence across the country, over 2 million Iraqis have been displaced during 2014. Nearly half of them, about 950,000, are now in the KRI, a semi-autonomous area smaller than the Czech Republic with a population of 5.2 million. Most of them are Yezidis from the Sinjar region, in addition to Turkmen and Arabs from towns and villages around Mosul. Before January 2014, the KRI had already opened its doors to about 230,000 refugees from Syria. It is as if the United Kingdom, population 64 million, had received 14.5 million people desperate to flee war.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has made efforts to build camps for those displaced. Baharka camp, just outside Erbil, hosts about 3,000 displaced Iraqis and Palestinians in tents. Being very close to the capital, this is one of the most visible camps. Despite the frequent visits by foreign dignitaries, journalists and charities, however, conditions in the camp are far from ideal, especially when it rains. After dark, solar lamps and mobile torches keep the market going.
The governorate of Dohuk, a town of 280,000 inhabitants West of Erbil, is hosting about 430,000 displaced people, in addition to refugees from Syria. When we first visited the Dohuk area, in September 2014, those who could not find hospitality with local families had occupied all of the spaces that they could turn into shelter: the local schools, building sites, unfinished buildings, garages, parks and gardens. Three months later, there are 9 official camps for IDPs in the Dohuk governorate, hosting about 125,000 people.
Two of the official camps were built by AFAD, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Agency; three were built by the United Nations; and the remaining four were built by the KRG. As a result, their standards of accommodation, facilities and services vary greatly. In Bersive I camp, for example, an AFAD camp hosting about 10,000 people near Zakho, the tents are not fully insulated from the rain, there is no hot water and the number of toilets and showers does not meet minimum standards in humanitarian response.
With all their shortcomings, the official camps built so far can only accommodate part of those in need. The majority are scattered in hundreds of informal settlements, including construction sites, community spaces and unofficial camps. Others are in private accommodation or hotel rooms. Many of the displaced in the Dohuk governorate live in construction sites and unfinished buildings with limited or no access to water and electricity – a solution which is precarious, dangerous and open to the elements. We visit large unfinished buildings with no walls, windows, doors or bathrooms, sheltering hundreds of families in makeshift rooms with plastic partitions.
In winter, this difficult situation is made worse by the cold and rainy weather: at night the temperature can go below 0 °C. In the places we visit people do not have enough blankets, warm clothes and gasoline for heating, in addition to cooking, water and sanitation facilities. In a construction site near Zakho, Dohuk governorate, we see people making fire with paper to warm up; the weather forecast for the night is 3 °C. Many of the people we visit would not have survived without the help of generous landowners and neighbours.
There are an estimated 186,000 school-aged children (6 to 17 years old) displaced in the Dohuk governorate. The majority of them (about 89,000, or 55%) are in non-camp settings. There are significant gaps in the provision of basic education in camps. Outside the camps, parents who are struggling to provide for their family need their children to work in order to contribute to the family’s needs. As a result, very few of the children we meet are going to school.
We visit families in their tents, where we are offered countless cups of aromatic Arabic coffee and sweet tea. As our delegation is composed of women, the women of the families we visit can take their scarves off and the atmosphere becomes immediately more relaxed. We explain carefully Amnesty International’s role and the purpose of our visit, as it is important for our interlocutors to understand that we cannot provide them with food or clothes. However, we find people happy to talk to us; in many cases, none of the humanitarian organisation who provide them with food or clothes has stopped to hear their full story.
Some of the cases we documented will need long-term follow-up. An adequate response to the dire winter conditions, on the other hand, is urgent: immediately after the end of our mission we publish part of our findings, urging the international community to improve coordination and fill the gaps in humanitarian assistance:
Amnesty International, Iraq: Dire winter conditions expose shocking gaps in humanitarian assistance for thousands displaced, 19 December 2014.
This post is dedicated to Maria Corsi, my grandmother, who was a displaced child in Italy during the Second World War.
How to cite this post:
Francesca Pizzutelli, “Kurdistan Region of Iraq, December 2014: personal diary of a mission’”, The Rights Angle, https://therightsangle.wordpress.com/, 21 January 2015.