Not enough money to keep up with displaced Syrians and Iraqis, says UN

A distribution of Hygiene Kits in Kalhe village, Iraq. (Credit: ECHO)

Winter is coming to Iraq and Syria – it killed 11 young children last year who froze to death – and there is not enough aid to help all of the refugees.

“The most vulnerable population that I am really concerned for are the newly born babies who could face hypothermia and freezing as we have seen in Syria last year,” said Amin Awad, director of the Middle East and North Africa Bureau for the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

“The elderly and the frail, the sick and also, you have to understand that in winter there is a high increase of sickness, especially upper respiratory problems among children, elderly, and even the young and the strong population.”

UNHCR announced it needs an additional $58.4 million to support the displaced. A combination of not enough money and a sudden rise in Iraqi refugees forced the organization to make cuts to its planned program.

“The shortfall affects our winter preparedness programs, although we have already invested $154 million on winter aid for Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced, and means that UNHCR is having to make some very tough choices over who to prioritize,” said UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming, at a news conference.

The gap hits nearly 1 million people displaced from their homes inside Iraq and Syria. That is in addition to the millions of refugees who have fled fighting in the two countries. An estimated 1.9 million people in Iraq have fled their homes and another 225,000 left the country due to the rise of the violent Islamic State. The group, also known as ISIS, took control of large portions of Iraq in June.

The persistent civil-war in Syria and the sudden outflow of Iraqis makes it hard for the U.N. agency to keep up, it admits. Not enough money means fewer people will get the support they need to deal with the coming winter cold.

“With current funding, UNHCR now expects to reach only 240,000 displaced Iraqis with winter aid instead of the 600,000 we had planned to reach as part of an inter-agency effort,” said Fleming. “For example, our funding gap means we cannot provide tent insulation kits and boards for 140,000 people and 150,000 people cannot receive supplementary material like heaters and kerosene.”

Temperatures are already dipping to nearly 0 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of the two countries. Many of the recently displaced Iraqis fled with absolutely nothing. UNHCR is taking steps to prioritize whom it assists, but says the conditions will be “very tough” for those it cannot reach.

Ensuring the displaced get the assistance they need requires money right away.

“While the problem is most acute in Iraq and Syria, there are also needs in other parts of the region. This will be the fourth winter away from their homes for many Syrian refugees and the first for the 1.9 million Iraqis who have become internally displaced this year,” said Fleming.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.