Without fuel subsidies, aid to displaced Iraqis in jeopardy

ERBIL, 24 October 2014 (IRIN) - The prospect of a fuel bill five times higher than last year has left already overstretched aid agencies in Iraq worried they will be unable to help many of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in tents and shelters, just as winter approaches.

“This is a key concern, and time is of the essence. We are eagerly awaiting a decision on subsidies, and hope it will be forthcoming immediately,” said Edward Colt, a senior public information officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Iraq.

The Iraqi government has yet to announce whether it will apply subsidies that last winter reduced the cost for aid agencies distributing kerosene to people displaced by fighting in Syria and Iraq - who use it for cooking and heating - from market price (currently 90 US cents a litre) to 18 cents.

Then, there were just 220,000 people benefiting from the subsidy; now there are nearly two million in need, including several thousand who fled fighting in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane in recent weeks.

IRIN’s attempts to reach government officials for comment on the subsidy question were unsuccessful. Senior UN sources said negotiations were taking place at very high levels.

“While it is too early to provide … the numbers of families impacted, any reduction in subsidies would have a severe impact on those trying to make it through the coming winter,” said Colt. Like several other relief organizations, UNHCR based its winter fuel budget line on the subsidized price.

Since January, around 1.8 million Iraqis have fled the advance of Islamist militants. At the height of the summer, they risked dehydration and sunstroke; now they face a harsh winter with rain, snow and temperatures that drop to as low as minus 15 degrees on higher ground.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that across Iraq 800,000 people are in urgent need of shelter, and at least 940,000 lack essential household and life-sustaining items.

Call for more resources

“Efforts are well under way to prepare for winter, but much more is needed. We are particularly concerned about those displaced living in the open,” Neill Wright, acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, said in a statement.

“The authorities and the humanitarian actors need more resources urgently to ensure wider coverage.”

UNHCR currently only has the capacity and resources to respond to the needs of 30,000 families, or approximately 180,000 people, according to the statement.

“Winterization kits” vary from agency to agency, but typically include blankets, warm clothing, shoes, plastic sheeting, matting, plywood, insulation, kerosene stoves and heaters.

UNICEF, which had also planned to supply kerosene-based heating to some communal child friendly spaces and schools, is now trying to procure electric oil heaters.

It has also given out more than 5,000 hypothermic kits (including blankets, a plastic sheet and a mat) to the most vulnerable families in camps across the province of Dohuk in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, one of the highest and coldest parts of the country.

Aid agencies are focusing their winter plans on IDPs, although they will also conduct an assessment to ensure the “most vulnerable” Syrian refugees also get warm weather supplies.

UNICEF has identified 500,000 IDP children in need of winter clothing. It has procured 223,000 sets - which include hats, scarves, boots, socks, gloves and jumpers - but that leaves it more than 250,000 sets short.

Struggling to survive

Hajar, who only gave her first name, is a Shabak Kurd who fled her home in Bashiqa town near Mosul city in Nineveh Province after her father, a member of the Kurdish armed forces, was decapitated by the militant group calling itself the Islamic State (IS).
The 25-year-old, who is nine months pregnant, and her husband Sabah, a labourer, already have five children: a seven-year-old, and two sets of twins aged six and two.

“We have no money, no food, no work, no life. We don't have anything,” she said. “Winter is coming and all we have is this tent. We need warm clothes for the children and I am worried for my baby.”

Hajar is staying at Harsham Camp, a field for agricultural testing in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The site, home to around 1,500 displaced Iraqis, belongs to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Ministry of Agriculture, and is managed by the NGO ACTED. Site manager Yasmine Colijn explained that while they were doing their best to make the IDPs comfortable, they were restricted in what they could install.

“Because this is a Ministry of Agriculture testing site, they don't want concrete plinths,” she said, referring to the bases put down in other camps to provide a level surface for tents that help keep water out. “We don't even have boreholes. All the water is being bussed in and put in a communal tank.”

ACTED, she said, had been buying supplies of kerosene at market prices and had done two distributions so far. This was only a temporary solution, she said, expressing hope that the government would clarify the question of subsidies soon.

“I think all aid agencies are behind in terms of winterization preparation,” Colijn said. “It feels like everyone forgot about winter this year.”

Another senior NGO worker, who declined to be named, said: “There has been very little [inter-agency] winter planning, so we are very worried about what is going to happen.”