Q&A: Positive outlook for Iraq, but improvement will take months to show
ERBIL, Iraq, March 17 (UNHCR) - Following last year's turmoil in northern and central Iraq, the political and security progress in Iraq remains positive, but UNHCR Representative in Iraq Neill Wright believes it will take many more months before this is reflected in an improvement in the daily lives of most Iraqi citizens. Meanwhile, the numbers and needs of Syrian refugees and Iraqis displaced within their country are expected to continue growing throughout 2015 as there is no solution to the Syria crisis in sight, and efforts to degrade the capacity of militant forces will take time. At the same time, Wright notes, the funding prospects for humanitarian programmes in 2015 are bleak. UNHCR and its partners will have to increasingly focus on protection and assistance only for the most vulnerable. Wright answered written questions about these and other issues. Excerpts:
What are the greatest challenges UNHCR faces in helping the forcibly displaced in Iraq?
In addition to the funding shortfalls, the main challenge is to obtain safe access to persons of concern who are living in areas under the control of the Islamic State and other armed groups. Nearly 50 per cent of the Iraqi IDPs [internally displaced people] live in such areas - especially in the governorates of Anbar, Salah al Din and Ninewa.
Winter is almost over; would you say UNHCR was well enough prepared to cope with the winter weather?
Due to the existing refugee response capacities in early 2014, the UN was able to rapidly build its response to the massive internal displacement that took place last year. I would not say that UNHCR was well enough prepared for the 2014-2015 winter, but the weather was not as severe as had been expected, and there were no major crises amongst the refugees and IDPs, largely due to the extraordinary hard work that UNHCR and its partners were able to do between October and December. I have no doubt that the winterization programmes saved many lives.
Fierce clashes are under way in the Salah el Din district, particularly around Tikrit. Has UNHCR been able to help those displaced by the fighting?
UNHCR has already responded to the new displacement resulting from the military offensive to liberate Tikrit [launched on March 1], distributing non-food items from its Baghdad warehouse through its partner, Muslim Aid. UN sister agencies and NGOs will continue to work together in support of the government to provide protection and assistance.
Protection needs assessments are still under way to more effectively identify the numbers of newly displaced and their particular vulnerabilities. Access from Baghdad to deliver relief items requires movement through several insecure areas. Close attention to mitigating the risks for our brave field staff and those of our partners will be needed in the days and weeks ahead.
Is UNHCR prepared for a further escalation in the fighting and displacement?
UNHCR has developed contingency plans for large-scale displacement when the Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga [fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan] start their offensive to liberate [the northern city of] Mosul. Given the current funding constraints, the in-country capacity is inadequate, and we will have to depend upon the rapid deployment of global contingency stocks and emergency response teams if we are to respond effectively to this contingency.
Are you worried about access to Iraqi Kurdistan for newly displaced people?
In my meetings with politicians from the Kurdistan Regional Government, I know that they are committed to the principle of freedom of movement for all Iraqi citizens. Nevertheless, there have been instances where security agencies have denied access to Kurdistan in the past few months. I see this both as a reflection of the generous hospitality in 2014 diminishing and of concerns about terrorist infiltration amongst the security agencies, and not as a change in political policy.
Given your extensive experience, how does this operation compare to other assignments and missions that you have been on?
I never cease to feel proud of the work that UNHCR colleagues achieve in the most difficult, insecure and unpredictable environments, and those achievements are evident to me here in Iraq on a daily basis. There are many political, security and economic aspects of building a better future for Iraqi citizens that UNHCR cannot directly influence, but the UNHCR team here should take great pride in all it is doing to improve protection and provide relief from suffering for some two-and-a-half million people of concern to the High Commissioner for Refugees.
UNHCR in Iraq now has just over 400 international, national and affiliate workforce staff. While this is a huge number by UNHCR standards worldwide, the UN declared the situation in Iraq to be a Level 3 Emergency in August 2014, and UNHCR has stepped up to the mark in responding effectively to the growing needs. Given the present financial situation, the High Commissioner [for Refugees António Guterres] has had no choice but to decide to cut staffing worldwide in 2015, and the Iraq operation will be reducing its staffing by some 5 per cent this year.