As funds dry up, UN agency warns of ‘very tough’ winter for displaced in Syria, Iraq

A displaced young Iraqi boy in the north of the country uses a blanket to protect himself from the cold as a storm rages outside the half-built structure where he and his family have found shelter in Iraq's Kurdistan region. Photo: UNHCR/D. Nahr

11 November 2014 – An ongoing funding shortage coupled with a sharp growth in recent internal displacements is placing increasing pressure on United Nations efforts to assist millions of refugees across Iraq and Syria as they prepare for the onset of a long and cold winter, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned.

“The shortfall affects our winter preparedness programmes, 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,” the agency’s spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told the press today at a briefing in Geneva.

Ms. Fleming explained that because of a current $58.4 million shortfall, UNHCR is focusing on a specific set of criteria to determine which refugees would immediately benefit from the agency’s resources. Factors such as the elevation of refugee settlements, the presence of children or households headed by women, family health concerns, new arrivals, available family resources, and shelter conditions would all be taken into consideration.

“For those we're unable to prioritize,” Ms. Fleming continued, “the conditions could nonetheless be very tough.”

Over the past several months, Iraq has been convulsed by increasing instability amid an ongoing offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its affiliates, unleashing wave after wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.

Since January 2014, an estimated 1.9 million people have been displaced across Iraq as they fled the violence and persecution of ISIL’s recent offensives. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), close to 50 per cent of the displaced have found refuge in the high altitude areas of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, where winter temperatures can plummet to well-below zero. Hundreds of thousands have found temporary shelter in unfinished buildings, informal settlements, or overwhelmed public structures, as well as in the open air.

In Syria, meanwhile, the ongoing civil war continues to displace civilians, fuelling an increase in the need for winter aid, with priority areas for distribution of thermal blankets and winter clothing being the besieged city of Aleppo and northern parts of the country as they are the coldest.

Nevertheless, Ms. Fleming said, the needs in Iraq remain “massive” and most pressing amid floods of internally displaced persons and refugees who continue to pour into the country from Kobane, Syria.

“Funding has not kept up apace with the new displacement,” cautioned the spokesperson, who added that with current resources, UNHCR would only be able to reach 240,000 displaced Iraqis instead of the planned 600,000.

“UNHCR is deeply concerned about its ability to meet urgent winter needs,” she added.

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