Last updated: 5 September, 2014

UN races to shelter refugees in Iraq before winter

Hundreds of thousands of people who have fled to northern Iraq to escape jihadist fighters are in desperate need of housing, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.

“Time is of the essence,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva, stressing there was an “acute” need for accommodation.

“Winter is approaching fast, with snow, rain and muddy conditions. In less than three months from now, daily temperatures will average less than 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).”

The agency is organising a massive aid operation in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region to help many of the estimated 850,000 people who have fled there.

Yet, “many schools are still being used to house the displaced,” Edwards said, adding that there was an “urgent need to reinforce tents and other housing in preparation for the coming winter.”

Swathes of Iraq have been seized by militants since the beginning of the year, especially since jihadists from the Islamic State group launched an lightening offensive in June.

The IS militants, who are accused of widespread atrocities, including massacres, beheadings, rape and torture, have declared a “caliphate” in a region straddling the Iraq-Syria border, taking Iraq to the brink of breakup.

Up to 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced since January across the country — nearly half of them seeking refuge in the autonomous, three-province Kurdistan, according to UN numbers.

UNHCR’s largest single aid push in more than a decade, which it launched in northern Iraq on August 20, has been extended beyond the scheduled 10 days.

Over the past week, nearly 40,000 blankets, 10,000 kitchen sets and almost 18,000 plastic sheets have flowed into the region by plane, ship and road, according to UNHCR.

And “over the next few days, 10 further aid flights will be arriving in Arbil,” Edwards said, referring to the capital of the Kurdistan region.

Since June, the agency and its partners had provided more than 100,000 mattresses and 10,000 family tents to the region, he pointed out.