“Don’t they know that winter is coming?” Frustration and fear among Iraq’s displaced

by By James Lynch, Refugee and Migrants’ Rights researcher, in northern Iraq.

Everywhere in northern Iraq thousands of people driven from their homes by the conflict are now struggling to survive in grim conditions. As winter approaches it can only get worse.

Near Derabon, close to the Turkish and Syrian borders, a group of displaced families have simply found a patch of open ground beside roads and built the most basic shelters out of wood and straw. They get water – which they say is barely drinkable – from a spring about half a mile away and they are without any kind of power.

While we are there, a truck arrives and hands out donated mattresses, but there are not enough to go around. A group of children fight over the last mattress; it ends in tears for those who will spend another night on hard ground. Many of the children have no shoes and the adults ask us to take photos of the swollen, broken, hard skin on their feet, to show the world what they are experiencing.

This scene offers just a small snapshot of the hardships thousands are now being forced to endure.

Such was the speed and magnitude of the movement of people after the Islamic State (IS) entered Sinjar in early August that within days hundreds of thousands of people – mostly from the minority Yezidi community – fled across the Syrian border and back into northern Iraq. A month later there is still nowhere near enough accommodation for them, let alone basic services. Those camps that have been built are full. For those sheltering in schools, half-finished buildings or in the open, living conditions can be quite brutal.

In Khanke, a small town not far from the frontline, 91 people internally displaced by the conflict are crammed into an unfinished concrete building on a busy shopping street. The deep shock of being suddenly and violently ejected from their home towns is palpable. One man sits against the wall, unable to speak, apparently as a result of his traumatic experience.

The owner of the building says he is allowing them to use the space because he is appalled and moved by their situation. The onset of winter in just a couple of months is at the top of everybody’s minds.

It gets below freezing in winter and there is no wall to stop the cold coming into this place. I am very worried about their children getting ill if they stay here,” he said.

After a slow start, new camps are now being built, by the UN and the regional government, to try to avoid a further catastrophe as the colder months arrive; but it appears that the 129,000 people living in Dohuk’s schools are likely to be the first to move into these, so that the school term can begin for the region’s children.

Iraq’s displacement crisis, which has got progressively more severe throughout 2014 as conflict raged in Anbar, Mosul and Sinjar, has affected people from almost all Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities – among the most profoundly affected are the Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, members of the Yezidi faith, Kakai and Sabean Mandaeans. There are around 1.5 million displaced people across the country, leaving humanitarian organizations stretched and struggling to get support to those in areas considered too dangerous for staff to travel to.

Frustration and confusion at why the help is not coming faster is everywhere. A group of displaced Christians staying in the grounds of one of Erbil’s churches have been visited by foreign dignitaries including the French Foreign Minister, but despite this attention, they still only have intermittent water, and are sleeping up to 60 people in a tent.

While the world focuses on how to deal with the threat of IS, people displaced by the conflict wonder what their choices are for the future. No-one expects a quick end to the fighting, but in any case many people are convinced that even if IS is forced out of their towns eventually, they will never be able to return to their homes. Their trust that Iraqi or Kurdish forces will protect them from future attacks has, they say, been shattered.

Many say they want to leave Iraq and find another country to live in. A well-educated father of three staying in the town of Sharia says he is thinking of taking his family to Turkey, to attempt to cross the border illegally into Greece and the EU. We explain how dangerous this crossing is, and how it might not bring a better life for his family. But he wonders what other options he has:

What else can we do? We can’t go home, we know that no-one will protect us. And there is not much hope here. My wife is nine months pregnant, so I am thinking that we should go a few weeks after the baby is born, so that we can cross the mountains before the winter comes.”

Originally posted in Livewire, Amnesty International’s online newsletter