Iraq is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. But with ISIS destabilising Iraq, where will they go? Crikey intern Rachel Clayton reports.
The Middle East is already in the midst of a major refugee crisis, due to the 2.8 million people who have fled Syria. With militant Islamist group ISIS taking control of several provinces in Iraq and waging war within Syria and the Kurdish Autonomous Region on the boarder of Iran, where will the millions of displaced people be able to turn to for refuge?
The United Nations Human Rights Commission’s regional response plan for Syria estimates the Syrian refugee population could reach over 4 million by the end of 2014. But the current crisis in Iraq presents a new humanitarian crisis in the region, as 1.2 million Iraqi civilians were displaced in 2014 alone and ISIS’ power appears to be getting stronger.
The number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people exceeded 50 million for the first time in the post-World War II era at the end of 2013, with 51.2 million people forcibly displaced, the UNHCR reported on June 20.
The conflict in Syria has been partly responsible for the increase. Some 2.8 million Syrians have fled the country since 2011 in search of safety primarily in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iraq.
As of June 20 this year Turkey has absorbed 789,469 Syrian refugees, double the number the country held in June last year. Lebanon has taken in over a million. A further 57, 000 Syrians are awaiting refugee registration, and 6.5 million are internally displaced.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has said the global surge of displaced people is due to unresolved conflicts throughout Africa and the Middle East.
“We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict.
“Peace is today dangerously in deficit. Humanitarians can help as a palliative, but political solutions are vitally needed. Without this, the alarming levels of conflict and the mass suffering that is reflected in these figures will continue.”
The world’s supply of peace has been in even shorter supply after ISIS began its campaign earlier this year. Iraq is currently home to just over 225,000 refugees from Syria, and the UN recently reported a total of 500,000 Iraqis have fled from Mosul and 480,000 from Anbar since early June, including an estimated 250,000 children.
ISIS has recently assumed complete or partial control in 35 cities and is advancing towards the Haditha Dam, where employees have been told by army officials to open the gates and flood the town and village if necessary.
The UNHCR has said the Kurdish region where most of the Syrian refugees are housed is relatively stable. “We have no immediate fears about the safety of these people in the Kurdistan regions at the moment,” said Ariane Rummery, a spokesperson for the UNHCR.
“Though of course with another 300,000 internally displaced people now fleeing to the area, the hosting capacity of the region is coming under strain.”
A total of 20,000 people displaced by last week’s violence in the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar arrived in Sinjar on the western border of Iraq with Syria on Monday, June 16, UNHCR staff said.
“So far we haven’t seen any significant influx of Iraqi to neighbouring countries, but given the region is already hosting almost 3 million refugees from Syria, then there is little extra capacity to another large influx,” Rummery said.
The Al Qaem region in the west of Iraq currently holds around 5,000 refugees. This region has seen intense fighting and the UNHCR is “very concerned for the safety of those refugees”, says Rummery.
Last weekend the entire area of Al Qaem fell under the control of the armed opposition groups and currently humanitarian access to the camp is impossible with the roads cut off.
On Sunday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his grave concern at the deepening crisis in Iraq and the rising number of civilian deaths and injuries, with more than a million Iraqis having fled their homes due to the fighting.
With the crisis deepening and UN forces unable to reach the areas of refugees most in need the UNHCR has urged the international community to directly support host governments like Lebanon and Jordan, which are straining with the burden of hosting so many refugees.