ERBIL AND DOHUK, IRAQ — Watched by the world’s media, refugees have flooded Iraqi Kurdistan, a relatively safe zone in a country disintegrating along sectarian lines. But that disintegration, and the paucity of relief services here, present fresh challenges for the US and its allies in stabilizing Iraq.
In recent weeks, more than 100,000 people have fled to the Kurdish-controlled city of Dohuk from villages in Sinjar, mostly ethnic Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni extremist group. A previous wave of Arab Christians came from Mosul after it fell to IS in June.
Before the crisis erupted, Dohuk Province had an estimated one million residents. The head of the local council in Dohuk City says the population has now almost doubled with the influx of minorities like the Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak.
“The number of displaced is always climbing up…Dohuk has become a giant refugee camp,” says Faheem Abdullah. “All our work now is focused on emergency relief, and providing basic services.”
The number of refugees arriving from IS-controlled Nineveh province has slowed in the past 24 hours. President Barack Obama said today it appears that almost all of the Yazidi refugees who had been trapped on Sinjar Mountain have made their way to safety.
But with so many new mouths to feed and a lack of shelter, alarm bells are ringing. The UN said Thursday it had designated northern Iraq as a “Level 3 Emergency,” its highest rating for humanitarian emergencies.
“It is a vast, unmanageable crisis and it is going to get even more difficult because this war won’t be resolved soon,” says a veteran international relief worker who is now based in Erbil.
Moreover, the underlying causes of Iraq’s refugee crisis are likely to prove more difficult than feeding and housing the newly homeless.
Iraqi state television reported Thursday that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki had agreed to step down, which could pave the way for a more inclusive government in Baghdad. But there are no quick fixes to the state of the Iraqi military, which has failed to check the advance of IS in northern and western Iraq.
Mr. Abdullah, the Dohuk councillor, has opened his own home to four Yazidi families from Sinjar. His neighbor is hosting two families from Qaraqosh, a Christian town 12 miles east of Mosul.
More than 225 schools have been turned into shelters in Dohuk City and Zakho, where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey converge. Funding comes from the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), international organizations, and private donations.
“Hospitality here has been much stronger than any humanitarian aid that is in place,” says the international relief worker.
The first major wave of displaced people in Dohuk came from Mosul and Christian villages of the Nineveh plains, where fear of the IS has emptied out entire areas. The second wave is made up primarily of Yazidi families who fled from Sinjar and other areas seen as vulnerable.
The KRG has spent $15 million addressing the Sinjar crisis so far. With no money coming from Baghdad and wrangling over oil revenues, cities like Erbil and Dohuk are burning through their emergency funds, say Kurdish officials. In 2013 the region spent $80 million on Syrian refugees alone.
Huge needs, limited help
So far Baghdad has provided military helicopters to assist with air drops of food and water and the evacuation of small numbers of people. Thousands continue to arrive daily via Syria. There are long registration lines at improvised camps, and some families are simply setting up on the side of the road.
Abdullah Hamid, who manages the Bajet Kandala Transit Center, says the camp’s population quadrupled in a fortnight to about 23,000 people.
“The families stay here for three days and they are relocated to other areas where they may have relatives,” Mr. Hamid says, warning of a potential health crisis due to a shortage of potable water and sanitation.
The arrivals from Sinjar, some of whom walked for days in grueling heat, arrive in a weakened state. Many have been traumatized by their experience.
One woman collapsed in hysteria at the mention of the Daash – the Arabic acronym for IS. Another woman committed suicide jumping off a cliff with her two babies, according to an aid worker.
“The only difference between being here and in Sinjar is that here we have water,” says Sardar Bapir, a new arrival.
Families with nowhere left to go turn to houses of worship, makeshift camps near natural water springs, and unfinished construction sites.
“The problem is that they come here with absolutely nothing so it is very difficult to provide for all their needs,” says Salah Goran, an aid worker.
“We have many kinds of donors, some who just volunteer their time to cheer up the children,” adds Valy, a volunteer at a church for Christian refugees in Erbil
Many people in the surrounding area, are bringing boxes of food to help out and even opening up their houses, so that the displaced can take showers.
“Most people are supportive but we also have some ethno-centrist members of the community who want to throw out all the Arabs from the region because they see them as a security threat,” says Valy.
Christians and other minorities feel betrayed by long-time Arab neighbors, perceived to be allies of IS militants. Kurdish Peshmerga forces have repeatedly come under fire from Arab villagers on their way to the front line.
Erbil residents wanted to hold a demonstration calling for the eviction of Arabs last week, but the authorities denied permission. In the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah residents rallied on August 8 to demand that Arabs be placed in internment camps.
“Anti-Arab sentiment is on the rise here,” says another international aid worker.
This post originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor