The number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq continues to pose a significant humanitarian challenge for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Iraqi authorities. An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced as a result of the 2006-2008 widespread sectarian violence and there have been consistent warning signs over the past year that the country is on the verge of returning to some of its darkest days of internal conflict. With such conflict come new waves of IDPs that join the existing victims of sectarian violence to form one of the most vulnerable populations of people inside Iraq. Between April and December 2013 more than 1000 families were displaced, mainly in Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Basra, due to increased security threats. The fear of violence and a deteriorating security situation also sadly prevent existing IDPs from returning home. In 2013 the UN estimated the number of IDPs in Iraq to be approximately 1.13 million.
Prior to the worrying destabilization of Anbar province this month, the United Nations (UN) had already expressed clear concerns that Iraq was facing a new crisis regarding an increasing number of IDPs and deteriorating living conditions for this vulnerable section of Iraqi society. Since the outbreak of sporadic conflict in and around Fallujah and Ramadi and the emergence of impending large-scale Iraqi security force offensives in these cities, thousands of families have made the difficult decision to abandon their homes in fear of their own safety. NGOs, UN agencies and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) have released estimates that vary greatly but indicate that a total of more than 100,000 people (22,000 families) have been displaced from and within Anbar since the start of the violence. The vast majority of displacement has been from families living in Fallujah.
The situation in Fallujah and Ramadi is developing rapidly and field situation reports published by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) have confirmed that the main reason for families leaving their homes has been the deteriorating security situation. For a few weeks families were facing difficulties in obtaining food and fuel but most decided not to leave. However as the threat of violence and head-on conflict have increased the difficult decision to leave has been taken out of their hands. The associated strain on local hospitals also appears to have been intensifying as the frequency of casualties requiring urgent medical treatment continues to provide a significant burden upon available resources. More than 71 civilians have been killed and 319 injured as a result of the conflict in Anbar, according to UN statistics.
NCCI field situation reports have shown that displaced families have been seeking refuge in local schools, old housing and storage places that are strongly unsuitable for residence over a sustained period of time. These families have been in great need of items such as blankets, mattresses, cooking appliances and food items. The availability and pricing of food items and fuel have been significantly affected by the ongoing violence. Rental of local housing has also escalated to about four times the original cost in some locations, which has greatly hindered displaced families looking to somewhere to lodge. Other displaced families have been luckier in that they have been hosted by family relatives.
The humanitarian response up until now for displaced families in Anbar has faced significant constraints that have arisen due to the complexity of the conflict. Checkpoints have been closed by security forces for long periods and other roads and accesses have fallen under the control of militants. Fields workers for local community groups, religious groups and NGOs such as the Iraqi Red Crescent have been bravely operating under treacherous conditions in order to distribute relief supplies, which up until now have been received from very limited resources. The conflict is dynamic and has been evolving at a pace that is difficult to keep up with when planning comprehensive relief efforts. Access routes that are open one day may quickly become blocked as the violence becomes scattered in an increasingly desperate battle for territorial control. Limited access to areas has also been a sizeable obstacle to carrying out detailed needs assessments for the IDPs in Anbar.
Whilst the majority of displaced families still remain in Anbar, a large number have also been displaced to other regions in Iraq. This presents a wider challenge for the humanitarian response effort. According to NCCI’s field network there are around 15,000 IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan (Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Dohuk) that have been displaced from Fallujah and Ramadi, in addition to the significant number of IDPs that are now located in the Iraqi regions of Salah-al-Din, Kerbala, Najaf, and Baghdad. Displaced families in Iraqi Kurdistan may feel relieved that they have found their way to this relative safe haven but will quickly find themselves staring in the face of new challenges. Families are beginning to complain about high prices for the rental housing and the difficulty of obtaining residency, which is now being renewed on a weekly basis at the discretion of local security forces. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is currently working alongside aid agencies to set up a temporary camp for the IDPs arriving from Anbar.
It appears that in the current whirlwind of political and security instability we should expect more and more families to be forced to make difficult choices about whether to leave home and search for relative peace and stability in a different region of Iraq. Providing assistance for the displaced remains one of the lasting challenges for the humanitarian community working in Iraq. NGOs and UN agencies intensify their activities under difficult constraints in Anbar province with no end in sight to the violence. Only when stability improves and access enables aid agencies to carry out more detailed assessments will the extent of the humanitarian crisis emanating from Anbar truly be realized. If this stability is maintained then families will be able to return to their homes and schools can reopen. Any growing pressure on health services in areas hosting a large number of IDPs will also be somewhat relieved. However the Director of Health in Anbar has been working hard to quickly fill any gaps that appear due to an increased population in any area hosting IDPs. In terms of infrastructure damage as a result of the ongoing conflict, significant reparation costs are being projected and houses belonging to local families have been in some cases seriously damaged.
Written by Benjamin Hargreaves, NCCI Communications Team, Jordan
To mark its 10th anniversary, NCCI is publishing a series of 5 op-ed interviews during each week in April. The interviews will be held with individuals who have worked closely with NCCI for all or part of the past 10 years. The following interview focuses on NCCI’s early history to give readers an insight into early challenges, successes, and initiatives, and it includes interviews with:
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008)
Former Field Coordinator (2003-2005)
NCCI: At the onset of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there were a few NGO coordination organizations, which included OCHA, Joint NGO Preparedness Initiative (JNEPI), and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). After the war, the civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) also began organizing humanitarian initiatives. What inspired the need for an NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq?
Board Member: After the invasion it was impossible for humanitarian actors to work under the CIMIC or US troops’ coordination since it would imply disregarding the ICRC code of conduct (impartiality, neutrality, autonomy). US led troops were, until a legitimate Iraqi government was elected, an occupation force, and working with them would de facto mean to be on their side. This became a serious problem when security conditions started to deteriorate (attacks against UN offices, attack against ICRC, kidnappings, etc.). NCCI was extremely needed in that context to defend the humanitarian space from the different parties in the conflict and also to coordinate activities since the UN could not set up a cluster system in Iraq.
NCCI: Was there a specific prior organization or plan on which NCCI was modeled?
Former Executive Coordinator (2005-2008): Not really, some NGOs experimented with a coordination body in Rwanda in the 90’s and in Afghanistan in 2001/2. NCCI was not based on a specific model and instead designed based on the needs of NGOs at that time. NCCI evolved a lot in 10 years to adapt itself to the context and the needs of NGOs.
NCCI: What was the vision of the relationship that NCCI would maintain with its members, non-member INGOs, and non-member NNGOs?
Board Member: Since the beginning, NCCI was an inclusive process trying to expand its membership as much as possible. There was a specific attempt, since the beginning, to avoid a western or European led initiative and involving Iraqi and international NGOs. In the first years, INGOs were leading the process, as more NNGOs became involved and became an active part of the process.
NCCI: What were some key challenges that the formation of NCCI faced in its earliest stages and how were these overcome?
Board Member: Security was a serious challenge in the beginning. This meant not only the need for security officers who were constantly advising members about threats and challenges, but also an objective difficulty in identifying appropriate and professional staff who were accepting to live in Baghdad. Funding, on the contrary, was not a challenge since a lot of international donors, and among them ECHO has been for a long time the main sponsor, were acknowledging the importance and role of NCCI.
NCCI: In 2003, while other coordination organizations, such as JNEPI, were losing capacity, NCCI was growing in both size and efficacy. What were some of the reasons for NCCI’s early success and how was this accomplished?
Former Field Coordinator (2003-2005): ECHO’s generous financial support to NCCI was one of the biggest reasons behind the success of NCCI. The departure of the UN after the bombing of its [headquarters] in the Canal Hotel, and NCCI subsequently taking the lead for coordinating NGOs, UN agencies, and in some cases for government entities where there was no government, is another reason for its success. At that time they initiated [working groups] for IDPs, Health, Education, WASH, etc… Additionally, NCCI was the main source for information and field coordination for the HC of the UN based in Amman.
Being neutral all the time, not being part of military operations, and not being escorted by military vehicles were other reasons for NCCI’s success. Its regular coordination meetings for all stakeholders working in humanitarian activities, the officially shared minutes of all meetings, and general information sharing when there is no other neutral channel available on the ground is yet another reason. Additional reasons include creating WWW maps and sharing them with all members; the establishment of NCCI offices in four areas inside and outside Iraq: Baghdad, Erbil, Kuwait, Amman, and also field staff in the Basra office.
For all the above, NCCI was respected by all, including beneficiaries and communities, which helped NCCI extend its reach into all places in Iraq, while encouraging others to listen to NCCI and to utilize its services.
NCCI: What benefits was NCCI able to deliver that other organizations were not? And what was the difference between these benefits and services toward NNGOs and INGOs?
Former Field Coordinator (2003-2005): After the US-led invasion of Iraq, there were very few NNGOs (National NGOs). As in Iraqi culture before the war, we did not have actual NGOs with visions, as there are in other countries. I will not go into details as I’m sure you understand what I mean by that. NGOs were a new concept to Iraqis at that time. After the war, the civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) began organizing humanitarian initiatives and this was catastrophic for creating NNGOs since anyone could come and register as an NGO and attend this meeting and would be considered an NGO, and would have been given an amount of money up to $5000 to do a project after attending a few meetings. This lead to the creation of hundreds of “suit case” NGOs, and destroyed the image and vision of real NNGOs, leading to a lack of trust in their work.
For INGOs, especially those who wanted to be viewed as impartial and neutral and not linked to armed forces, or those who were not ready to be linked with occupation authorities since it would affect their status and image in front of beneficiaries, they were looking to independent bodies for coordination, especially after the Canal Hotel bombing (UN HQ) and the absence of a government.
At the early stages, NCCI was a great benefit to INGOs (more than NNGOs for the above reasons), especially the European ones. The emerging NNGOs at that time were looking for funds, which were available mainly from the Americans, as the UN and others did not fund many new NNGOs with the instability on the ground, so funds were given to INGOs. At that time it was discussed to use a mentor approach with national staff at INGOs and help them create NNGOs. Not all INGOs were ready to do so, but the few NGOs who participated in this process were able to continue in Iraq after the departure of most INGOs and the UN in Iraq.
NCCI sometimes played an important role for coordination not only for INGOs but also for the UN and the CPA in Iraq. Also, during the Najaf and Falluja crises, the humanitarian space that was opened with the help of NCCI helped to provide aid for casualties and for these cities.