This is not your typical crisis | Karl Schembri

Karl Schembri, Middle East regional media manager for international aid agency Save The Children, urges the international community to remember that the Iraqi refugee crisis also has a human face.

Karl Schembri (C) Save The Children
Karl Schembri (C) Save The Children
Karl Schembri speaks to refugees in Erbil, Iraq (C) Save The Children
Karl Schembri speaks to refugees in Erbil, Iraq (C) Save The Children
Karl Schembri speaks to refugees in Erbil, Iraq (C) Save The Children
Karl Schembri speaks to refugees in Erbil, Iraq (C) Save The Children

These are grim times for people involved in the humanitarian efforts in the Middle East. Ten years since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the entire region has been destabilised by successive waves of violence and unrest.

Statistics indicate that the decade of ‘peace’ following the Iraqi war proved more costly in terms of human life than the actual invasion itself.

More than 4,500 US soldiers died during the occupation, when the number of war casualties stood at only 400. The Iraqi body count is considerably harder to quantify. The most conservative estimates place the figure at 150,000, though others have suggested that as many as a million may have perished in the invasion and subsequent unrest.

Though alarming in themselves, these statistics tell us little about the plight of the surviving victims of war and instability: a growing mass of civilians, including women, children and the elderly, who have been forced to flee their homes: caught up in a vicious sectarian cycle of violence that places ordinary people at risk on the basis of their religious or tribal affiliations.

Coupled with a steadily deteriorating situation in Iraq following the withdrawal of occupying forces in 2011, a full-blown civil war in nearby Syria has meanwhile considerably aggravated the existing crisis. International humanitarian agencies present in the region found themselves struggling to contain a growing influx of tens of thousands of refugees crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border into the safer territories of Kurdistan in the north.

In the past year, renewed civil violence in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, on the Syrian border, also dramatically escalated this problem. More recently, the rapid gains made throughout the Iraqi stage by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)– a jihadist militant group that seeks to carve out an independent Sunni enclave in both Syria and Iraq, and ultimately across the entire Middle East – have triggered a renewed humanitarian crisis which now threatens to overwhelm international aid agencies that are already arguably stretched beyond their limits. 

In the thick of the ongoing refugee crisis is Karl Schembri, formerly a journalist with MediaToday, but now the Middle East regional manager for Save The Children: one of the larger international humanitarian agencies present in the region, and which has been on the ground working with refugees and displaced people since the first Gulf War in 1991.

Karl himself has been based in the Middle East since 2009: having spent four years working with development organisation Oxfam in the Gaza Strip, and another year working on the Syria crisis in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

He is currently in Erbil in the northern Kurdistan region of Iraq, which (alongside Dohuk) hosts among the largest concentration of humanitarian aid camps in the country.

Until just over a week ago, Save The Children was busy catering for the needs of an estimated 100,000 people, mostly families with children, who had fled from the ongoing civil war in Syria. But in the past week alone, these numbers swelled by at least 500,000, this time fleeing from Iraqi cities such as Mosul, Tikrit and Nineveh, as they capitulated to a rapidly advancing insurgency that has engulfed the region in turmoil and violence.

Save The Children director Aram Shakaram estimates that half the people fleeing are women and children. And with the conflict growing steadily more unpredictable with each passing day, the region is poised for even greater influxes in the near future.

“It’s a very desperate situation,” Schembri tells me over the phone from a hotel in Erbil, where humanitarian experts being flown in to step up the response are accommodated (and which also provides a more reliable communication link than elsewhere).

“Half a million people have been displaced in the past week alone, and the situation keeps changing hour after hour. This is not your ‘typical’ crisis. Mass dispersals are happening all over the country, all the time. We can’t even give any figures or estimates of the numbers of people involved – things are happening too fast. I have met families from Mosul who felt safe in their homes until only the night before having to flee for their lives… and the same is happening in other cities and regions too.”

The required response by the humanitarian effort likewise has to constantly adapt itself to the transforming landscape, as refugee camps are struggling to contain an influx which is expected to get worse. As Karl Schembri puts it, “It’s like building a plane when we’re already flying…”

What about the situation in Erbil itself? Schembri confirms the perception that the Kurdistan region remains a safe destination for refugees. “There is no reason to believe these areas could be targeted. The conflict is moving southwards towards Baghdad, and so far even camps set up on the border have been considered safe.

"Hopefully things will stay this way. But this is also a big part of our own responsibility. People have fled to us for safety. They now depend exclusively on the local government and international agencies – not just us, but all the other charities working here, the UNHCR, etc. – for their basic needs.”

As a result of the sheer suddenness of this crisis, many of the refugees reaching the camps will get there with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. “To give an example I have met 60 families living in a park, in stifling heat, with no water or sanitation, or even any shelter. There are children who have been injured or traumatised by air strikes… families who walked miles through the desert… ”

But an even bigger problem, Karl explains, is that others who are in a similar predicament do not reach the camps at all. And these include the most vulnerable categories of people.

“The biggest headache from a humanitarian point of view is precisely that the most vulnerable people are the hardest to reach. Some families may have been able to get away from problem areas because they have a car… even though with fuel now scarce, having a car is no guarantee… but there are still thousands of people who have no such opportunity trapped in the most dangerous environments: cities like Mosul and Tikrit, where government forces have left, and where there are no basic services of any kind.

“These include children, the disabled, persons with mobility problems… our responsibility is to try to find the most vulnerable and help them move to safer areas, but they are the hardest category to reach out to. We are working with dedicated local partners to reach them but they themselves are living through this crisis and risking their lives…”

Meanwhile, as the crisis deepens, the long-term prospects even for the ‘luckier’ of the displaced families appear bleak.

“Not all the people fleeing end up in camps. Some have relatives or friends who can put them up, others have enough money to rent a flat or stay at a hotel. But many are now running out of money, and are being forced out onto the streets. Local Kurdish families have very generously offered to take in some of the refugees, but again this depends on their means and as the crisis deteriorates many cannot afford to take in any more.”

The same applies to the Kurdish authorities controlling the areas into which refugees are currently pouring.

“The Kurdish government has responded well to the crisis, but it is stretched beyond its capabilities. Charities and humanitarian agencies are likewise struggling to step up their own response. We are currently recruiting new people, especially technical experts, but we have to rely on the generosity of the international community…”

From the perspective of the humanitarian organisations involved, what sort of assistance is most urgently required? “On an immediate level: water, food, sanitation, shelter. We keep getting people who can’t afford to feed their families on a daily basis. So the number one priority is to provide the basics…”

But Karl also explains that this wasn’t Save The Children’s first response. The recent mass displacements are not isolated events, but form part of a much wider context of a humanitarian tragedy in the wake of the Syrian conflict.

“All this takes place against the backdrop of the Syrian war, which had already spawned a humanitarian tragedy. And don’t forget that we had already been dealing with the displacement of thousands of refugees from the Anbar region over the past year.”

Apart from providing emergency humanitarian aid, the international agency also runs programmes aimed at educating children, reunifying separated and unaccompanied children with their families, and other services which also require technical expertise.

“At Save The Children we are also trying to set up ‘child-friendly spaces’. The idea is to provide all sorts of child protection services… areas where children can continue receiving an informal education in a safe and structured environment, monitored by experts… where they can be referred for trauma and psychosocial services, for instance…”

But the sudden escalation in violence in other parts of Iraq, and the resulting influx of refugees, have also dramatically increased the pressure on all such charity institutions to perform these and other functions. Assistance is now needed more urgently than ever, and much like the conflict itself, exigencies are constantly changing.

Meanwhile the sheer unpredictability of the unfolding scenario is such that there is no end in sight. With different cities rapidly falling under control of different factions, it is impossible to predict whether any area can be considered ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ for very long.

What is the mood among the refugees themselves? Iraq has been no stranger to civil violence over the past decade. Do the people Karl comes into contact with view this latest crisis as significantly different from any other? Do they see their own displacement as something permanent, or do they hope to return to ‘normality’ in a not-too-distant future?

“That depends on several factors, and the answer changes depending whom you speak to. The conflict we are witnessing is much more complex than a Sunni-Shia divide. Iraq is a very varied pluralist society, and depending on the agenda of the people you talk to, the perspective will be different.

"I have met people, for instance, who feel it might be safe to return to Mosul in the near future. But I have met others, including families with children, who are determined never to go back at all. The truth is we don’t know how the situation will develop. I can’t say what will happen in the next hour, let alone next week or next month…”

Moving away from the situation on the ground: as we speak, the international community appears hesitant to take any direct action. There is talk of possible military intervention, and the Iraqi government has openly appealed for US air strikes against ISIS positions. How does this impact the feeling among the people Karl Schembri comes into contact with daily? Is there any way of gauging the popular mood regarding whether foreign powers should intervene?

“That is another bone of contention, and again it depends whom you talk to. I’ve heard all sorts of answers to that question. The dynamics of the situation are complex: different factions have different interests, and very often you wouldn’t know exactly what those interests are.”

Regardless of what decisions are taken on the international stage, the prospect remains that the crisis will worsen in the immediate future. “One thing is clear. More violence, whether it takes the form of local or foreign intervention, will lead to more displacement of more people. This is not an issue that can be solved just militarily: we can’t forget the plight of the civilians, including the extremely vulnerable, the children.

“Our appeal is for the international community not to forget that this is primarily a humanitarian crisis. Even if the fighting were to suddenly stop, we would still keep getting people who cannot afford to meet even their most basic needs…”

Karl Schembri also argues that there are different ways in which other countries can intervene. “The international community can exert pressure to see to it that the basic standards of humanitarian behaviour are respected. It must be made clear that humanitarian obligations of the warring parties are not optional: civilians have to be protected, no matter what. Whatever grievances may exist between whatever parties, and regardless of what they’re fighting about, there are obligations which remain indisputable.”

This, he adds, is where foreign policy really matters. “Every government has its own channels of communication, and can help reinforce the message that human rights are non-negotiable. What we keep appealing is for the United Nations to focus on exerting pressure and influence in this direction. Let’s not forget that at the heart of this tragedy are people.”

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