Walter Hajek from the ÖRK Catastrophe Management Department visited Erbil in Northern Iraq to get a picture of the local situation as well as of the necessary relief efforts. In an interview with derStandard.at he talks about the local humanitarian situation, the necessary effort to support the people, and why the refugees have not yet abandoned all hope in spite of their terrible fate.
derStandard.at: What is the humanitarian situation in the refugee camps?
Hajek: In the whole of Iraq, about 1.8 million people have lost their homes and are now internally displaced. A very large part of that, 800,000 to 900,000 refugees, is now in Kurdistan. About 250,000 Syrian refugees, who have fled from Syria to Kurdistan in the last years, have to be added to that. There are considerably more than a million refugees and internally displaced persons, spread out on a territory that is about as big as Lower Austria, Styria and parts of the Burgenland. This huge amount of refugees is of course a huge burden on the local population. Many are placed in public buildings like schools. Others live with families and friends. Those who are most in need live on the streets, in unfinished buildings, garages, and under bridges. That is the group which needs help the most, but at the same time is the one most difficult to reach. It is always easier to reach and support refugees in a camp than to do the same with widely scattered families.
derStandard.at: How do refugees register to a refugee camp?
Hajek: The International Committee of the Red Cross in Northern Iraq (ICRC), our partner on location, carries out the registration and takes care of refugees in need of help. We also cooperate with other aid organizations to prevent double registrations. We then make sure that the refugees have not received aid supplies from other organizations already.
Right now, preparation for the winter is extremely important. On location, the temperature is at about 40 degrees. A month ago, it was close to 50 degrees. In December, the temperature reaches degrees around the freezing point. This means that the temperature range is huge. In the months from December to March there will be raining season at the same time. One has to prepare well for the cold and the rain.
derStandard.at: Are there enough resources to support the refugees?
Hajek: The problem is that an enormous number of refugees have arrived in a relatively short amount of time. Even though the Red Cross and other aid organizations have very good access to Kurdistan, the sum of all refugees is so big, that we cannot reach all of them with our current means. I nevertheless remain optimistic. The situation is manageable; it just takes massive support to handle it.
The situation is different in the rest of the country, where there is an incredible amount of internally displaced persons, but at the same time the possibility to help is heavily constricted. This circumstance is mostly based on safety reasons. International organizations cannot act in territory that is controlled by the armed opposition. The expression “armed opposition” is used, because not only the IS-militia is viewed as potential danger, but also sub-groups as Sunni tribes and former members of the Baath-party – the former party of Saddam Hussein. For the Red Cross, even as a strictly neutral organization, this poses a challenge. Time and again ad hoc possibilities emerge, to help in those regions too. We are hoping that we can manage better and better to do so in the future.
derStandard.at: Where are most of the refugees from and what are their motivations?
Hajek: Those with whom we talked came from various villages, Mosul and Erbil. That is where the fronts are changing the most. Many had to pack their belongings and leave their homes from one moment to the next. Most of them could not take anything with them. Another problem is that many did not have to flee just once but several times. The first time they may have had the possibility to take some of their belongings with them. But the second or the third time this possibility was not given anymore. In the end they were left with nothing. In those cases, one has to supply the refugees with very basic things. Besides food and water they are being supplied with essential and basic household appliances such as pans and pots. Furthermore, many are traumatized and shocked, because they had to leave family members behind and had to watch people die.
derStandard.at: How is the mood; do people still believe that they will eventually be able to return to their homes?
Hajek: Everyone is hoping that they can return to their homes eventually. My feeling is that nobody expects this to be possible in any foreseeable future. Yes, the front is moving back more and more towards the direction of Mosul; the territories that are left behind however are now heavily mined and partially destroyed. The territories have to be cleaned up and cleared before the people can return.
derStandard.at: France and the USA have begun with their first air strikes. Have you noticed any air strikes and/or other attacks?
Hajek: One notices something, because the air strikes are being started partially from the airport in Erbil. However, we did not notice the attacks themselves at all. There are no audible rocket or bomb explosions.
The only thing the people are beginning to get afraid of is assaults by the armed opposition. A few days ago the highest authority for safety in Kurdistan has raised the alarm level because it expects bombings and attacks by the armed opposition in the next days.
derStandard.at: How strong is the presence of the IS-terror militia in the region?
Hajek: Well, if you take a walk in Erbil, you don’t notice anything. The local markets are open. There are very few checkpoints, except at the airport and at strategic points like the city entrance. One does not notice at all, that the frontline runs only 50 kilometres from here.