The heroic Kurdish resistance in Kobane rightly commands headlines. A larger disaster, however, looms in Iraqi Kurdistan where – absent urgent action by the UN and Iraq – thousands of vulnerable people who fled from the Islamic State (Isis) could die in weeks from cold-related illnesses.
It was comfortably warm in the Kurdish capital of Erbil last week, but in December temperatures will drop to below zero in the cities and much lower in the mountains. The warmth made the makeshift camp I visited in the Christian enclave of Ankawa look almost bearable. It occupies a public park and houses 50 families, mainly Christians from Mosul, in increasingly threadbare tents. Soon, torrential rain can be expected to turn the hard ground here into a muddy lake, soaking everything and reducing hygiene. The cold will exacerbate this but there are few heavy blankets around – one per family, in another sprawling camp outside Erbil.
Kurdistan is home to roughly 250,000 Syrian refugees, with more now coming from Kobane, and roughly 800,000 internally displaced people from Arab Iraq. Most arrived after the fall of Mosul in June with only the clothes on their backs. The current pace of camp-building means that about 170,000 people will lack shelter when winter calls.
Shelter, food, sanitation and health fall to three forces: the international community – donor countries, NGOs and the UN; the federal government in Baghdad; and the regional government in Erbil.
The UN is held in cold contempt here, as clunky, flat-footed and abominably led. That’s how polite observers put it, anyway. The UN official in charge of humanitarian affairs has just left and will not be replaced for a fortnight. I hear of unwieldy meetings in Erbil where 40 representatives of UN agencies – some of no relevance – all have their say in seeking consensus, when the priority should be making decisions.
Baghdad is present through Skype, but contributes little. Iraq is nominally a rich nation, although there is talk of an unexplained deficit of many billions. I understand that Iraqi Arabs in Kurdistan have not received ration entitlements.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has his work cut out. He must overcome the poisonous legacy of his predecessor, defend Baghdad, reconstruct the pathetic shell of the Iraq Army, and reach out to Sunnis who preferred Isis to the federal government.
Kurdistan has itself not yet received its budget entitlements from Baghdad and employees on the public payroll – most workers – have not been paid for months. Investment projects are stalled and the economy is tanking. The dramatic fall in oil prices will wreck Iraqi budgets.
Foreign workers are thin on the ground, business class seats on my flights were mostly vacant and hotels and bars are emptier than normal. The usually active cranes are still, but one accidental benefit is that empty construction sites could be requisitioned as safe and temporary accommodation.
The Archbishop of Erbil told me of Christian fund-raising from as far afield as Detroit to supply caravans for families, which can be fabricated locally. Money is best, rather than goods that can be bought locally without huge transport costs and delays.
It is likely that these temporary camps will last many years, until Isis is defeated and there is a settlement in Syria, without Bashar Assad. The well equipped Isis army, bigger than Kuwait’s, is outwardly medieval but combines the sophisticated use of the social media and spectacle to scare, as well as a lethal combination of Kamikaze and Blitzkrieg to maintain momentum. The Kurds need heavy weapons to defend themselves and a deal with Baghdad to go on the offensive against Isis.
Arab Iraqis cannot return until hundreds of battle-damaged and dangerous villages are made safe. After slaughtering anyone left, Isis retreats, having seeded nests of booby traps that, even if the expertise were to hand, take ages to destroy.
The danger of old people and babies dropping like flies in the camps seems distant but will come suddenly. The UN and Iraq need to get a grip, work with the Kurds, and help those who have already lost everything and now face needless death in the Kurdish winter.
Gary Kent was recently in the Kurdistan Region for the 17th time since 2006 as a director of the European Technology and Training Centre in Erbil. He is also the Director of the All-Party Parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region. He writes in a personal capacity.