A Special Interview with UNHCR Representative in Iraq, Philippa Candler Winter and COVID-19 challenges in Iraq

February 5, 2021

The past year has been exceptionally challenging for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq. The escalation of hostilities between major actors in the region, coupled with the ongoing protests, resulted in a fragile security and political context that compromised the stability, transition, and reconciliation efforts achieved thus far. UNHCR’s access to people of concern in certain locations was affected as a result of these events. Moreover, following military operations in the north-east of Syria in mid-October 2019, more than 17,000 Syrian refugees fled into Iraq, requiring the operation to redirect significant resources to address this emergency.

Today, and as the country faces the most difficult winter months coupled with the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic, protection risks for the displaced families remain acute, with many IDP and returnee families affected by physical insecurity, limited freedom of movement, confiscation of documents, detention, forced evictions and an increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence. Poor economic conditions further hindered the access of many families to medical care, adequate shelter and other basic essentials, occasionally leading to resort to negative coping mechanisms.

UNHCR is on the ground in Iraq providing shelter, water, sanitation, cash assistance, healthcare, education, livelihood support and protection services, as well as winter assistance when temperatures plummet across northern Iraq. But as the years go by when Iraq does not often reach the headlines, our support for vulnerable families is nonetheless just as important.

An interview with UNHCR’s representative in Iraq, Philippa Candler, explains the role of UNHCR in protecting displaced families and how the operation is responding to the needs of refugees and displaced families amid confinement.

  1. Could you tell us about the situation in Iraq right now?

Iraq hosts over 283,557 refugees and still has over 1.2 displaced persons, with over 4.5 million returnees, a majority still in need of assistance. According to the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2021, there are 4.1 million people in need in Iraq. Recently and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the restrictions and lockdown, there has been a huge impact on livelihoods for most people including refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. Many were not able to go back to their work and students are not back in schools yet. The pandemic took a toll on the country, the economy and the people. UNHCR and its partners are on the ground providing awareness raising, protection services, cash assistance among other services to our persons of concern. It is heartbreaking to see vulnerable families who lost their livelihoods, struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis with living. When I go to visit refugee families in the camps, I am always impressed when I see their resilience and that they have not given up hope for a better future. 

  1. Now that country is experiencing the coldest months of winter, what preparations are in place this year and what does the winterization programme cover for families in need?

For many refugees and IDPs, this is the tenth consecutive winter in displacement. Yet, even greater hardships are being faced this year due to the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the interventions within the winterization programme are in the form of cash assistance allowing families to decide for themselves how to spend the money on their most urgent needs during the difficult winter months. Significant investment was also made in preventative measures, such as insulating and repairing shelters and improving drainage in camps.

In its response, UNHCR coordinated closely with all UN agencies and other humanitarian actors through the inter-agency working groups, as well as with government authorities, to maximize the efficiency of the assistance provided and to avoid duplication of activities.

UNHCR’s winterization assistance programme was vital this year to ensure that over 474,000 vulnerable IDPs (79,000 families), 187,500 Syrian refugees (37,500 families), as well as 17,500 refugees of other nationalities (3,500 families) in Iraq are well equipped with the necessary resources to survive the harsh winter conditions.

  1. Please let us know, in your view, why is cash assistance important to displaced families? How is it impacting their lives?

Cash assistance helps families buy what they need, when they most need it. It is most helpful at times when the economic situation is dire- or like currently with the impact of COVID-19 and the economic aftermath on people, especially vulnerable persons like refugees and displaced person who lost their livelihoods, or female headed households and elderly. UNHCR and during the lockdowns distributed cash assistance for hygiene to vulnerable refugee and displaced families all over Iraq which helped to ease their suffering and improve their conditions. We started cash assistance for winter, and multi-purpose cash assistance for vulnerable families. In addition, there are the regular range of humanitarian assistance that we provide in cooperation with our partners that includes, food, water, nonfood items, shelter, healthcare, education, and other protection services. The assistance and services provided during these difficult times help to support families in need.

Al Salamiyah Child 12 December 2017, UNHCR, © Alejandro Staller
  1. How is UNHCR Iraq responding to the current health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic? (Any preventive measures taken regarding refugees and displaced families?)

In its efforts to support refugees and IDPs and as part of the Corona response, UNHCR has taken several measures to raise awareness among refugees, volunteers, health workers and our staff members handed out brochures and answered questions and went door to door to ensure that people are aware and know how to protect themselves. Together with partners, UNHCR is reinforcing systems to communicate with refugees. Helplines, such as the Iraq Information Centre (IIC), used by refugees, IDPs and IDP returnees, and outreach programmes are being strengthened with the aim to ensure challenges faced by persons of concern are identified quickly and appropriate responses are put in place. As a humanitarian community what can we do to improve the lives and living conditions of refugees and displaced people. It’s not only providing them with assistance, but also investing in their future by creating opportunities and better livelihoods for them so they can help themselves to stand on their feet again.

In most camps provisions of medical Protective Personnel Equipment (PPE) were distributed at health clinics, registration centres, border points, as well as to the Ministry of health and its department. Health workers were trained and equipped to handle emergencies.

Then we have the cash assistance for basic assistance which helped most refugee and displaced families to obtain the necessary disinfectants and the necessary means to access adequate basic hygiene items. In addition, we distributed sanitary kits to women and girls in camps.

Training of health workers and medical staff in camps on case definition and detection, as well as on management of suspected COVID-19 cases. Cooperation with health authorities proved effective when it came to identification of infected cases, tracing contacts and isolation of areas to contain the spread, especially in the camp settings.

Ongoing distribution of assistance and registration activities: new modalities have been established to continue ensuring the distribution of assistance, this includes door-to-door distribution to avoid mass gatherings. Registration activities continue to be implemented remotely and through limiting the number of individuals in registration centres that are still open. Isolation areas have been identified inside camps to be used as quarantine spaces in the event that public hospitals are overwhelmed.

  1. How does UNHCR select the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees in Iraq and Iraqi displaced families? What is the selection criteria being followed?

Through protection assessments that take place regularly with the help of our protection partners, families are assessed and persons with special needs are identified by community-based outreach structures (outreach volunteers, community representatives, community-based organizations who may identify them during home visits, calls, or daily engagements with the community), as well as through complaint and feedback mechanisms (help desks/information feedback points, complaint boxes, calls to the Iraq Information Centre, emails to UNHCR designated email accounts). On the outreach side, there are also specialized Community Protection, Gender Based Violence and Mental Health Psycho-Social Support community workers of various forms who also work within the community for those types of cases. Through assessments, we determine vulnerable families by knowing the household structure, working family members, the presence of special circumstances, like sick family members, elderly or people with special needs. In addition to this, camps have management committees usually elected by camp residents and community volunteers that help address their concerns and are considered the voice of camp residents that connect them with the UN teams and NGOs working to aid and support them.

  1. What is the message you would like to voice on behalf of those in need in Iraq? Especially for refugees and displaced families?

The needs are still enormous, refugees, asylum seekers, displaced persons and the host communities that received them all are considered people in need according to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Plan. The crises in this region are protracted, we would like to see more people returning to their homes, restoration of peace, trust and security among communities. What is needed is more investment in the resilience and strength of refugees and displaced persons so that they can change from recipients of assistance to active members of their societies contributing to its growth and development, while paving the road towards their own well-being and prosperity.