Mass poisoning at Iraqi refugee camp puts focus on region's displaced

UNHCR estimates it faces a $1 billion funding gap this year and urgently needs hundreds of millions for Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

Food poisoning hurts hundreds at Iraqi camp (credit: REUTERS)
On Monday around 800 people became ill after breaking their daily Ramadan fast at a camp for internally displaced persons near Mosul.
According to reports from Rudaw, a Kurdish media outlet, the iftar dinner had been brought by an NGO to the camp which is located between the Kurdistan Regional Government autonomous region and recently liberated areas around Mosul city.
The mass food poisoning is part of a larger problem throughout the Middle East and North Africa where there are millions of refugees and IDPs, many of them living in camps that are often underfunded and face an uncertain future.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and Islamic State invaded Iraq in 2014 the two conflicts have produced unprecedented levels of displacement of people forced to flee their homes due to conflict. A report from the UNHCR last September noted there were 6.5 million IDPs and 4.8 million refugees, the latter having fled their countries.
An April 2017 report by the International Organization for Migration concluded there were 3 million Iraqi IDPs with 680,000 living in camps.
A June 6 report from UNHCR said the organization is facing a more than $1 billion funding gap this year, with $187 million “urgently needed” to address Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
According to a different UNHCR report from early June an addition $126m. is needed to cover urgent needs for Iraqis who have fled fighting in Mosul. “UNHCR has so far established 12 camps in support of the overall efforts by the Iraqi authorities to provide shelter to currently 316,000 internally displaced Iraqis in areas near Mosul,” said the report.
It was in one of these camps, Hassan Sham U2, which houses around 9,000 people, that the food poisoning occurred. According to the Rudaw report 30 ambulances were sent from Erbil and patients were transported to hospitals in the Kurdistan capital and in Khabat, which is near the camp. An organization called Women and Health Alliance International said it sent three ambulances and its clinic treated 347 people. Early local reports that one or more children had died from the poisoning were corrected and it appears most of the patients, who were vomiting and had stomach pains, are now in better condition.
The crises, however, sheds light on the immense task countries in the region face in taking care of refugees and IDPs. For Iraq, where the three-year war on ISIS has created an economic crisis, the issue is especially acute. Many cities, such as Mosul, have been left without infrastructure and partially in ruins after ISIS. IDPs fear returning either due to lack of services, or because of ethnic and religious tensions.
For instance many of the hundreds of thousands of Yazidi refugees who fled ISIS massacres in 2014, have not returned. The Kurdish region hosts around 2 million IDPs, which is almost a third of the region’s population.
This all strains the abilities of local governments to care for the refugees and their own citizens and has implications for the Middle East’s future.