The heroic Kurdish resistance in Kobane rightly commands headlines. A larger disaster, however, looms in Iraqi Kurdistan where – absent urgent action by the UN and Iraq – thousands of vulnerable people who fled from the Islamic State (Isis) could die in weeks from cold-related illnesses.
It was comfortably warm in the Kurdish capital of Erbil last week, but in December temperatures will drop to below zero in the cities and much lower in the mountains. The warmth made the makeshift camp I visited in the Christian enclave of Ankawa look almost bearable. It occupies a public park and houses 50 families, mainly Christians from Mosul, in increasingly threadbare tents. Soon, torrential rain can be expected to turn the hard ground here into a muddy lake, soaking everything and reducing hygiene. The cold will exacerbate this but there are few heavy blankets around – one per family, in another sprawling camp outside Erbil.
Kurdistan is home to roughly 250,000 Syrian refugees, with more now coming from Kobane, and roughly 800,000 internally displaced people from Arab Iraq. Most arrived after the fall of Mosul in June with only the clothes on their backs. The current pace of camp-building means that about 170,000 people will lack shelter when winter calls.
Shelter, food, sanitation and health fall to three forces: the international community – donor countries, NGOs and the UN; the federal government in Baghdad; and the regional government in Erbil.
The UN is held in cold contempt here, as clunky, flat-footed and abominably led. That’s how polite observers put it, anyway. The UN official in charge of humanitarian affairs has just left and will not be replaced for a fortnight. I hear of unwieldy meetings in Erbil where 40 representatives of UN agencies – some of no relevance – all have their say in seeking consensus, when the priority should be making decisions.
Baghdad is present through Skype, but contributes little.