The baffling disappearance of Iraq from the international agenda and critical funding shortages for aid and relief agencies are not the only factors negatively impacting upon the efficiency of the humanitarian response inside the country. Since the outbreak of conflict in Anbar more than five months ago, safe and secure access for aid provision has been a problem, despite persistent efforts made by international NGOs and UN agencies to exert pressure on parties to the conflict to facilitate access for humanitarian workers to deliver assistance to vulnerable populations.
In early March, the DRC Country Director, Michael Bates, urged “Iraq’s security forces and armed groups to create a safe passage to allow humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations and ensure the security of aid workers”. The ICRC has also reiterated on several occasions its urgent call made in January for “all parties in Fallujah and elsewhere in Anbar province to spare civilians and to allow medical personnel to carry out their duties safely”. Unfortunately, despite unified calls for the parties to the conflict to assure secure access corridors for relief workers, little progress appears to have been made. The latest upsurge in violence in Fallujah has sparked yet another announcement from Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Representative, for improved humanitarian access and has led to fresh concerns from NGOs providing aid to beneficiaries inside the conflict areas. Manaf Al Ani, a representative from the Al Mahaba W Al Salam Forum (a national NGO operating in Fallujah city) recently described the access situation as impossible, explaining that although families are in desperate need of support, he and his team had not been able to find a way of entering the city for more than two weeks.
It is widely unknown exactly how many families remain trapped inside the conflict areas of Fallujah and its surrounding sub-districts and villages but the humanitarian situation in these locations has been worsening day on day. Access routes have been continually blocked off for aid agencies attempting to provide humanitarian assistance to trapped families inside Fallujah city and strategic bridges linking parts of Anbar to Baghdad have been destroyed in the fighting. There are also a growing number of reports being released about the inability of vehicles transporting humanitarian aid items to pass through armed checkpoints. This is despite the fact that the government and local authorities have made some efforts to try and enable humanitarian aid access and are engaged in active talks with the UN country team representatives.
In the midst of all the political disparity and intense sectarian tension in Iraq it is the ordinary people that simply wish to continue to live their regular, everyday lives that are suffering, as they are faced with increasingly limited resources. Families in various different parts of Anbar are suffering from a severe lack of food and water, shelter, medical supplies, clothes and other essential relief items. Their financial situation has been stretched beyond breaking point as they have no choice but to buy fuel, medication and basic food supplies at exorbitant prices due to the increasing lack of availability. Many of those families that had been trapped in conflict areas and are now displaced locally remain unable to relocate because of their desperate financial situation and lack of family contacts in other areas.
NGOs are becoming increasingly concerned about the health of vulnerable populations inside Anbar because of the obstacles to access for humanitarian workers. Stretched public health services, poor sanitation, overcrowded living areas and contaminated water sources all place much higher risk on the potential spread of polio and other waterborne diseases in the local populations. These concerns have been compounded by the purposeful, intermittent flooding of areas stretching between Baghdad and Fallujah, including most recently Abu Ghraib. Fallujah’s General Hospital has also been caught up in the conflict when it was the target of anonymous shelling and it has for long periods been in urgent need of different types of medication and key medical staff. Ramadi’s General Hospital has suffered similar shortages as efforts to deliver key supplies have been hampered by the ongoing fighting.
The conflict in Anbar has been gradually spreading to other areas of Iraq, with clashes taking place over recent months in Diyala, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, northern Babel and areas of Baghdad such as Yousifiya, Tarmiya and Abu Ghraib. The announcement of Iraq’s parliamentary election results are expected to take place at the end of May and will provide further motivation for violence and unrest in different areas of the country. This will further impact upon the ability of aid agencies to provide humanitarian aid as they are challenged by additional obstacles to access the affected areas. The MSF team that has been working alongside the local authorities and religious and community leaders to distribute blankets and hygiene units in Tikrit has recently announced its concerns about the “extremely challenging security environment”. MSF has described access as having become “the main challenge to providing aid” amid a volatile security situation, which has threatened the permanent presence of their teams.
Over the coming weeks and months aid agencies will continue to work hard to advocate for the securing of access for humanitarian workers to conflict areas and review different access options. Working under such difficult conditions does give increased impetus to a coordinated humanitarian effort whereby aid agencies are sharing vital information relating to needs assessments and target populations. NGOs will need to come together to evaluate the viability of solutions and decide upon what external support is needed to implement them. Existing gaps in provision desperately need to be filled and the provision of aid for vulnerable populations that remain trapped in conflict areas needs to be a joint effort. Aid and relief agencies must make use of the comparative advantages and experiences that they possess and also hope that the international community does not forget the ongoing suffering inside Iraq.
Written by Benjamin Hargreaves, NCCI Communications Coordinator