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Iraq is at a crossroads – the EU’s engagement in 2023 can help set the course

Posted on 12 Jan 2023

Written by Lilu Thapa, Executive Director for the Middle East

It’s been five years since the Government of Iraq declared an end to the conflict with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but the impacts of this period are still being felt – in continued pockets of insecurity, frayed relations between communities, and persistent humanitarian needs.

As we enter the new year, nearly 1.2 million Iraqis remain internally displaced, many of whom face complex challenges to return: homes which were destroyed during the conflict, security and safety concerns, trauma, fear of community rejection, heightened community tensions, or a combination of these factors. These barriers can seem insurmountable; indeed, 90% of internally displaced people do not intend to return home this year, and may need support to reach other solutions to their displacement.

Of those who have returned in the past couple of years, more than 1 in 10 people live in areas that are classified as of ‘high severity’ by the UN – characterized by lack of access to jobs or public services, feelings of unsafety, and/or heightened community tensions.

The EU and its Member States must step up

The course set forward in Iraq in 2023 could have resounding implications for building stability, for the country’s economic recovery – and for addressing continued displacement and humanitarian needs that resulted from the conflict. Now is the time for the international community to step up engagement, not step back.

Given its longstanding engagement in and on Iraq, the EU is well placed to support Iraq’s path forward. Indeed, EU engagement is critical to ensure Iraq’s displaced are not forgotten and can access state services and social protection schemes. EU aid can help ensure humanitarian needs are effectively addressed and incorporated into its longer-term development assistance and can support the government in delivering durable solutions for displacement – for example in increasing access to documentation and working towards economic and social inclusion. The EU can also work with the government to tackle long-term issues, including adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Lilu Thapa, Executive Director for the Middle East

Rising temperatures, growing numbers of dust storms, and drought are wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of Iraqi communities.

/  Lilu Thapa, Executive Director for the Middle East

A country at a crossroads

Following a year-long delay after elections in 2021, Iraq kicks off the 2023 with a new Government in place in Baghdad, under the leadership of Prime Minister al-Sudani. The new administration has tall orders, and a long list of critical priorities – including tackling corruption, improving the quality of services, and reforming the economy.

And, the start of the new year also marks another change: the country’s humanitarian response architecture has been de-activated by the UN. While some humanitarian interventions will continue in 2023, these will scale down drastically, with the result that the Government will need to increasingly step up to meet needs. As these aid systems leave, it remains unclear how well and how quickly the government will be able to respond to many critical areas of need. This is especially true given the sheer scale of need, the fact that services have been eroded by years of conflict and under-investment, and the reality that these populations have too-often in the past been excluded from government priorities and action.

This includes over 100,000 internally displaced people living in informal sites, unable to return home. Conditions in these sites are often critical. They are far removed from services and markets, and those living there often reside in tents, makeshift shelters, or unfinished buildings, offering them little protection from scorching summer temperatures or cold and rainy winter days. Yet, these populations are often excluded from broader recovery and development efforts – and can even be disadvantaged by them. DRC has recorded an increasing number of families who face threats of eviction from these sites in order to make way for broader development or reconstruction efforts. In almost every instance those being evicted tell us they have nowhere else to go, and so find themselves re-displaced once again. DRC has been responding to threats of eviction with the support of European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), but risks remain high.   

As the country continues to grapple with the impacts of the past, the future also looks set to bring new challenges. Not least of these are the impacts of climate change and water scarcity. According to the UN, Iraq is the 5th most vulnerable country to climate change in the world, with dire warnings parts of the country could become unlivable by the end of the century. Rising temperatures, growing numbers of dust storms, and drought are wreaking havoc on the lives and livelihoods of Iraqi communities. Thousands have already been displaced, including many who had previously been forced to flee conflict.

Therefore, in 2023, we must see EU aid assistance continue, flexible enough to adapt and shift to address any gaps that may emerge as the humanitarian response winds down. Even as UN-led aid systems leave, needs remain. Continued assistance and concerted engagement with the Government of Iraq by the EU and its Member States – including as part of a broader diplomatic dialogue – will help ensure that durable solutions to displacement are achieved, and that where inequalities persist, they are effectively addressed. This is needed to ensure Iraq’s continued recovery and development is inclusive and sustainable. This is where the EU can help set the course.

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