The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni rebel group Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
Sunburned and dehydrated from their trek across the desert, thousands of refugees continue to arrive at camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. Alongside ethnic minorities like Yazidis and Christians fleeing the Islamic State militants, there are Sunni and Shia Muslims escaping the violence.
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In the space of just a few weeks, an estimated 1.2 million Iraqis have been forced to flee their homes.
The United Nations began an operation Wednesday to supply basic needs to about half a million of the refugees.
“This is probably one of the largest supply-driven operations of the United Nations over the last 30 years because of the intensity of displacement and because of the time band of this displacement -- extraordinary high numbers of people, women, children, families displaced in a very short time band which is probably less than one week," said Marzio Babille, the U.N.’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.
Aid has been flown in from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. More will arrive by road from Turkey and by sea from Dubai and Iran.
The Badjet Kandela camp was built as a transit point on the border for Syrians fleeing their civil war. Now it is home to more than 11,000 Iraqis. U.N. Field Officer Bahzad Amin says the camp has doubled in size in the last two weeks.
“This is a very urgent need for the families," said Amin. "We are trying to manage better for the basic facilities, water delivery, latrines installation, and so on.”
Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region has had its budget cut by the central government in Baghdad in a dispute over oil. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) representative in London, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, says the KRG cannot cope with the refugee influx alone.
“These are people who have seen murder, rape, genocide. They are traumatized," said Abdul Rahman. "They have nothing, literally nothing except the clothes on their back. They have no toilet facilities. They don’t have access to clean water. We need a serious humanitarian push from the international community, otherwise there will be an outbreak of disease, and things will get even worse now in Kurdistan.”
Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who visited a camp near Irbil Wednesday, voiced the hope of the international community that new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, can offer a solution to growing humanitarian crisis.
Renzi said he hopes Haider al-Abadi is able to rapidly create a cabinet that can meet expectations, not just the expectations of [Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud] Barzani, of the Kurdish government, but the expectations of the whole Iraqi population. And, he added, the expectations of the whole world.
Authorities in northern Iraq say the world must help it deal with twin crises -- a well-armed and brutal terrorist group in the Islamic State, and the humanitarian crisis it has created.