IRC mounts emergency assistance for Iraqis

With the war against Iraq escalating, the International Rescue Committee is deeply concerned about an impending humanitarian catastrophe.
The IRC has begun placing staff throughout the region to prepare for critical emergency services.

"The IRC is preparing to meet the needs of displaced populations wherever the need is greatest," said George Rupp, the IRC's president. "We hope the U.S. government will work quickly to remove the bureaucratic barriers that are hampering relief efforts."

As in any sudden and massive population exodus, displaced people suffer from a lack of food, clean water, sanitation, shelter and health services. The impact of these shortages are felt most acutely by children, women and other vulnerable groups.

IRC's Emergency Response

Five emergency response teams are poised to begin relief efforts for displaced populations in Iraq and bordering countries. Each team includes a coordinator and specialists in water and sanitation, primary health care, logistics and child protection.

Initial emergency interventions will focus on lifesaving activities-supplying potable water, constructing latrines, providing basic health care, distributing emergency supplies and caring for vulnerable children. UNICEF has designated the IRC as a lead agency in assistance for separated and traumatized children in Iraq.

The IRC's emergency response is being mobilized out of its regional hub in Amman, Jordan. Staff in Turkey, Kuwait and Iran are also coordinating emergency interventions, determining access routes and procuring and positioning supplies.

Rehabilitation Assistance

In addition to providing critical services during and immediately after a war, the IRC is also prepared to deliver extensive rehabilitation assistance in a post-conflict period. This includes health care training, health education and support to health centers, the tracing and reunification of separated families, teacher training and educational support, specialized care and protection services for traumatized children and structural repair to and construction of water and sanitation systems, homes, schools and health facilities.

Key Humanitarian Concerns

Capacity: The current capacity of aid organizations operational in Iraq is inadequate to meet the needs of a humanitarian disaster there. Many aid groups that have been trying to establish operational capacity inside Iraq have been unable to due to U.S. sanctions. The capacity of local aid groups is modest in size and scope. Sufficient supplies have not been stockpiled, local aid workers have not been trained, and international assistance has been negligible.

Toxic Environment: The use of chemical or biological weapons would lead to high rates of fatalities and casualties and massive population displacement. However relief agencies are unprepared, untrained and ill-equipped to deliver aid in toxic conditions.

Access: Providing access to vulnerable populations is the responsibility of all parties to a conflict, yet both the United States government and the government of Iraq restrict access to populations in need.

U.S. sanctions, imposed by executive order and implemented by the U.S. Treasury Department, bar U.S.-based aid organizations from setting foot in Iraq, preventing access to populations in need of humanitarian assistance and hampering the ability of such groups to adequately prepare for a humanitarian disaster. The government has pledged to loosen the restrictions, but the red tape involved in obtaining licenses continues to hamper American aid organizations trying to launch crisis interventions.

The Iraqi government has not recognized the legitimacy of international humanitarian aid agencies in northern Iraq and in central and southern Iraq, it limits access to vulnerable populations. The failure to provide free and unfettered access for humanitarian assistance is a violation of international humanitarian law.

Restrictions on access to humanitarian assistance are proving devastating to the civilian population. We urge unhindered access to vulnerable Iraqis.

Need for UN Coordination: It is essential that humanitarian activities be coordinated by a civilian authority. The UN is the only banner under which the majority of aid agencies, donors and border states can work together effectively and independently of the military forces involved in the conflict.

Mass Displacement: The war against Iraq may lead to mass population displacement. The United Nations estimates that a million or more Iraqis could seek refuge in neighboring states. The humanitarian consequences of a refugee buildup at borders will be severe. Dialogue with border countries to urge abidance of laws that protect refugees is urgently needed.

Disruption/Collapse of Oil-For-Food Program: Some 60 percent of the Iraqi population is dependent on food rations that are administered by the UN Oil for Food Program and the Iraqi government. It is the sole international mechanism for distributing humanitarian aid in Iraq. No significant food or medical reserves exist in-country, and there has been very little pre-positioning by donors. A disruption or collapse of this food pipeline as a result of the war could endanger the lives of millions of Iraqi civilians.

"The distribution is done on a monthly basis and it's a rolling distribution, so every day of the month a portion of the population is there to pick up its food," Mitchell told National Public radio in an interview January 12, 2002. "So the day that the Oil for Food Program breaks, people are not being fed."