Iraqis Living in Squalor - Q & A with IRC Program Director Aidan Goldsmith
So many Iraqis have fled their homes. Where have they gone and how are they surviving?
More than two million Iraqi people have fled the country and are living as refugees in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere. But larger numbers are uprooted inside Iraq, With ongoing sectarian violence, many Iraqis civilians have been forced out of their neighborhoods and are living with relatives in areas where they feel safer. Baghdad has become a segregated city. The poorest of the displaced are living in makeshift camps or have settled in towns where they are able to set up tents or squat in abandoned buildings. They live from day-to-day - surviving on dwindling savings, limited amounts of humanitarian assistance, and any small wage they can earn as day laborers. The reality though is unemployment has surpassed 40%. There is very little work available so families are largely dependent on help from relatives, the government or aid organizations.
How would you describe conditions in the camps?
Just a few days ago I visited a camp in Suleiymanyah and the conditions in the camp were terrible. People were living in crude shelters fashioned out of blankets, plastic sheeting and rough wood frames, with no adequate sanitation. The sewage runoff from makeshift latrines is right next to where people are living and where children are playing. It poses serious health concerns, especially in the hot summer months when the threat of waterborne disease rises.
How is the IRC aiding people in the displacement camps?
The IRC is using private funds for critical emergency water and sanitation assistance at two of the most populated camps in the Northern region. In the Azadi camp, we will be linking the camp to a nearby water system, which will provide 2,400 people with regular access to clean water. We will also be building latrines, drainage systems and showers for 1000 residents in the new Baayenjan camp. We know that poor hygiene practices are common in both camps, so we will be training women in the community to conduct hygiene education campaigns. All of these projects should greatly improve day-to-day life in the camps as well as improve overall health conditions and lessen the likelihood of outbreaks of cholera, which is always a possibility in such conditions.
We intend to hire camp residents to do much of the construction work on the water and sanitation projects, so that will help them out financially, provide some additional skills and expand their work opportunities moving forward.
How does the ongoing instability on the country impact the way the IRC operates within Iraq?
Because of the security situation in the central and southern part of the country, we are largely dependent on our trained Iraqi staff and partner organizations to conduct assessments, collect data and carry out programs.
Fortunately, there are a lot of community organizations here doing good work under extremely trying circumstances. The IRC team here has been identifying and building relationships with local organizations that have strong ties with communities in the north and south of the country. These are the organizations that will play a significant role in the rebuilding of the country so we place a high priority on strengthening their capacity. Our staff members have held workshops with seven organizations so far to improve their ability to design and implement programs, put together proposals and budgets, and handle financing issues.
What needs to happen in order for the humanitarian situation to improve in Iraq?
The magnitude of the crisis has been ignored for too long and a massive effort is needed to address the crisis now and in the long-term. The Iraqi government needs to do more, but we know that change isn't going to happen overnight. They will need assistance and technical support, at central and local levels. Whether donor countries were involved in the conflict or not and regardless of where support lies, there is a major humanitarian crisis that requires a significant international response. How can they stand by when people are so desperate?
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