Iraq: Successive Waves of Population Displacement

Favila Escobio/MSF


Following heavy fighting between Islamic State forces and Kurdish forces in Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, as well as in other areas west of Kurdistan, more than 200,000 people are reported to have fled the area. Many Iraqis fleeing their homes have now moved into Kurdistan, where authorities have opened their borders to them. MSF has been working in Kurdistan for two years and is trying to respond to the needs of people forced to flee their homes, some experiencing displacement for the second or third time.

“The local Kurdish people were the first responders,” said Dr. Chiara Lepora, MSF’s program manager for Iraq. “They were the first to provide assistance to all displaced people who entered Kurdistan. Many of those displaced fled from Mosul and its surroundings when violence erupted there in June and July. Some are fleeing for the second time, having first fled the violence in Anbar province to take refuge in Mosul.”

In mid-June, MSF began operating a number of mobile clinics west of Kurdistan to assist IDPs. However, these were stopped when IDP populations fled last week in anticipation of attacks. The mosque in the town of Bashiqa, where MSF ran a mobile clinic, was bombed on August 8, after the IDPs had already left the site.

The MSF team has since reorganized to respond to new locations of IDPs. On August 12, a clinic was established in Baharka Camp, north of the city of Erbil. More than 2,400 individuals are at the camp, with the population increasing rapidly; another 200 families are expected to arrive today.

“There are emergency needs in terms of sanitation, shelter, and non-food items such as hygiene kits,” said Dr Lepora. “Our teams speak of the fear in the eyes of the displaced people, especially those who had to leave places where they had once taken refuge.”

MSF is assessing the needs in and around Erbil, and has visited Erbil Hospital as well as the neighborhood of Ainkawa, where hundreds of displaced families have been staying at a church and in its courtyard. MSF is ready to provide medical support and has a medical team on standby.

MSF is also responding to the flow of thousands of Iraqi refugees from Sinjar who are crossing the border into Syria. A number of mobile clinics are operating on both sides of the border, and severe cases are referred to other facilities by ambulance. With the help of a local relief organization, MSF is also distributing food and water at three transit points on the way to the border crossing with Syria. The refugees have been exposed to particularly difficult conditions and have suffered greatly before reaching any type of humanitarian assistance.

The recent influx to Kurdistan follows the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis as well as 230,000 Syrian refugees already present in the region, overwhelming a previously efficient health system. MSF has been working in the Domeez refugee camp since May 2012 and in Kawargosk and Darashakran camps since October 2013, providing health services and psychological care to Syrian refugees.

“Media today are focusing on some minorities who are suffering greatly,” said Dr Lepora. “We also cannot ignore the plight of other populations, trapped in the conflict in Ninewa Province, as well as in Anbar Province to the west of Baghdad, where violence has led to the displacement of half a million people, and left many trapped with no access to health care and basic services.”

Despite the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which has made it very difficult for humanitarian organizations to work in the country, MSF is striving to provide medical care to the Iraqi people. MSF has worked continuously in Iraq since 2006, in various locations in the north and south of the country. In order to ensure its independence, MSF does not accept funding from any government, religious committee or international agency for its programs in Iraq, and relies solely on private donations from the general public around the world to carry out its work. In Iraq, MSF currently employs over 300 staff. 

Newly build floating bridge in Feesh Kabour - Sinjar idps setting off from the border towards a new life.
Favila Escobio/MSF