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People displaced by the war in Iraq


As fighting continues and food reserves gradually diminish, more and more people living in or near combat zones will find themselves forced to flee their homes in order to survive. Our teams currently working in Iraq report that so far most people displaced by the war have found refuge with relatives. Nevertheless, the ICRC has been sensitizing the warring parties to the special protection which must be given to civilians in times of war, and has been making preparations for the needs that may arise as the conflict unfolds.

What are "displaced persons"?


What are "displaced persons"? 

Armed conflict often results in large-scale displacements of civilians, both within the frontiers of a country and across international borders. In most cases, these people have had to leave behind all but a few of their worldly possessions. They are obliged to travel long distances, often on foot, to seek safe refuge away from the fighting. Families are dispersed, children lose contact with their parents in the chaos of flight, elderly relatives too weak to undertake such an arduous journey are left behind to fend for themselves. Internally displaced and refugees lose their livelihoods and the means of generating their own income. They are therefore dependent, at least in the first instance, on the goodwill of their hosts and on humanitarian agencies for their survival.

When people are displaced within their country's borders as a result of an armed conflict or internal disturbance, they form part of the affected civilian population. As such, they are protected by international humanitarian law and benefit from protection and assistance programmes offered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) under the mandate assigned to it by States. Indeed, given the extremely precarious situation in which many internally displaced people find themselves, they form a large percentage of the beneficiaries of ICRC activities. National authorities bear primary responsibility for dealing with problems resulting from internal displacement. Where the national authorities are unable or unwilling to do so, the ICRC steps in to provide for the most urgent needs of displaced people. In d oing so, however, it keeps in mind that the resources of host and local communities may have been stretched to the limit to accommodate the new arrivals, thereby rendering them vulnerable too, and that those who are left behind may also face extreme hardship and danger. It is with reference to this, the bigger picture, that the ICRC determines the beneficiaries of its assistance programmes. Vulnerability, rather than belonging to a particular category, is the deciding factor.

Expected material needs


Preparations for Iraq: expected material needs 

The ICRC believes that a majority of urban residents will try to remain at home or seek shelter in the area where they live, for as long as this is feasible. Many others will attempt to move to smaller towns or rural areas considered less exposed to air strikes, and where they may have relatives. These people are less likely to gather in places where camps would have to be set up, although this cannot be excluded. While initially these people might be able to share the resources of their host families, their absorption capacities run the risk of being exhausted relatively quickly; in this case not only those displaced but also the host families would require assistance.

The ICRC fears that inside Iraq, infrastructure in the sectors of energy (fuel, electricity), communications and transport (road links, bridges), and telecommunications, could be massively disrupted. As a direct consequence, health and water and sanitation services are at risk of breaking down. Immediate needs of residents and displaced people can thus be expected in the fields of medical care, drinking-water supply and sewage evacuation.

Due to the high level of dependence of the Iraqi population on " oil-for-food " rations, the supply of which is likely to be interrupted, food needs in Iraq are in danger of taking on dramatic proportions in the case of a prolonged conflict. Given the limited disposable income of most Iraqis, food short ages can be foreseen amongst the most vulnerable (i.e. the poor and the destitute, the elderly without family support, orphans, minority groups, etc.) within weeks. Food supplies for institutions, such as hospitals and prisons, are likely to be immediately disrupted. In the case of protracted warfare inside the major cities, the population will no longer be able to move from their houses and once their food supplies have been exhausted, their situation will be critical.

Massive population movements out of Iraq could be expected, for instance, if assistance cannot reach the population inside Iraq, or if the use, or fear of the use, of non-conventional weapons provokes general panic. It cannot be excluded that potential refugees would be given limited access to surrounding countries, and that camps would have to be set up for them in the border areas.

Details of ICRC assistance 

As a result of concrete measures taken over the past months, the ICRC is able to start assistance operations for war victims in Iraq immediately, access and security permitting.

 Economic security  


The ICRC is ready to provide up to 150,000 displaced people/residents with food and material relief, as far as possible in partnership with the respective branches of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS). Beneficiaries will receive food rations and relief kits according to identified needs, as per the tables below:

 Standard food ration per person (distributed as full or half-rations)  


 (full monthly ration)  

 S  tandard non-food kit per family  


Wheat Flour

6 kg




6 kg




4 kg

Jerry cans


Vegetable oil

2 lt

Kitchen sets



1 kg



Salt Iodized

0.3 kg





Hygiene Parcels


Supplies are in place in ICRC warehouses in Iraq (Baghdad, Arbil, Dohuk and Diana), in Iran (Kermanshah and Orumiyeh), Jordan, Kuwait and Syria. The t able gives the location of pre-positioned relief material and the corresponding number of potential beneficiaries.




 Emergency rations  


8,500 families (51,000 people)

5,000 food rations for institutions




4,500 families (27,000 people)

6,500 families (39,000 people)


15,000 rations


Iran (Orumiyeh)

3,500 families (21,000 people)

3,500 families (21,000 people)


15,000 rations




4,500 families (27,000 people)

4,500 families (27,000 people)


15,000 rations



3,500 families (21,000 people)

3,500 families (21,000 people)


15,000 rations



3,500 families (21,000 people)

3,500 families (21,000 people)


55,000 rations


 Water and sanitation  


A study conducted in late 2002 showed that many materials and equipment for water and sewage plants are available locally. Regular meetings have been held with the Iraqi water and sewage authorities, and contacts have been made with potential suppliers of water-treatment chemicals in neighbouring countries

The ICRC is ready to assist the Iraqi population, whether resident or displaced, by supporting existing water and sanitation systems. In an initial phase, work will focus primarily on carrying out emergency repairs on infrastructure and could benefit some 3 million people. Substantial preparatory work has been done over the last few weeks in close cooperation with the authorities concerned. This work includes repair and overhaul of generators and water treatment plants, preparation of mobile workshops and the installation of additional storage tanks.

Water and sanitation programmes will be set up according to assessed needs to assist displaced people wherever they might be, whether in existing structures or in camps. ICRC engine ers on the spot will carry out rapid assessments and material will be mobilized accordingly. So far, the ICRC has positioned material throughout Baghdad and in Basra to provide assistance to cover the water needs of over 100,000 displaced people in the first month of the conflict. The ICRC's preparations in this respect are aimed at ensuring capacity to intervene independently of existing systems, as regards water treatment, storage and distribution. To this end, chemicals, production/treatment lines and bladders have been stocked, and trucking means provided. ICRC national staff have been trained in the use of mobile water-treatment units. These units have already produced a large number of 1-litre water bags, which have been pre-positioned in hospitals and institutions in Baghdad. All contingency measures have been closely coordinated with the authorities concerned and other humanitarian agencies active in this field.

 Material positioned in ICRC warehouses includes:  


  1  Water Line (water bagging machine producing drinking water in 1-litre bags)

  water trucks with capacities of 10,000, 12,000 and 30,000 litres for potential emergency water distribution to selected areas, hospitals and primary health-care centres

  7  mobile treatment units

 50  flexible reservoirs   (bladders with various capacities (5, 10, 15 and 20m3)

 12  rigid reservoirs (Oxfam type, capacities 45m3 and 70m3)

 20  portable pumps (water and sewage)

 12  portable generators (used in emergencies)

 18  medium-size generators for small water stations (capacities 50, 63, 70,

and 100 kVA)

  8  tonnes of HTH (chlorine for water disinfection)

  5  tonnes of aluminium sulphate (chemical used in the water-treatment process)

Other items used in water/sewage pumping and treatment such as: electro-mechanical spare parts and consumables, pipes, fittings, emergency tools,

electrical starters, and cement for construction.    


Emergency interventions on water and sewage systems will continue as long as necessary, with a substantial potential for increase. In case of protracted hostilities, the needs of up to 6 million residents/displaced people could be covered with the support of the ICRC. As soon as the situation allows, ongoing rehabilitation projects will be resumed and most likely expanded.


A major asset for this type of intervention is the ICRC's in-depth knowledge, through its activities in this field for many years, of water and sanitation infrastructure in Iraq, and its acceptance by the authorities in charge at the working level. Since 1995, the ICRC has rehabilitated some 328 water and sewage plants.

Sufficient shelter material (tents and tarpaulins) has also been pre-positioned inside Iraq, in Jordan, Kuwait, Iran and Syria, to assist up to 50,000 people. The ICRC is able to quickly increase this assistance if need be. Agreements have been reached in this respect with National Societies in neighbouring countries, for example the Iranian Red Crescent Society, who are ready to contribute to the ICRC's relief effort inside Iraq.

Current situation


Displaced civilians in northern Iraq 

It is estimated that several hundreds of thousands of people have left their homes and are currently displaced in northern Iraq. These include large numbers of people who, within the Kurdish-controlled northern governorates, have fled from the towns to the countryside, as well as smaller numbers of people who have fled to the Kurdish-controlled area from other towns within Iraq (e.g. Mosul and Kirkuk). The latter, numbering several thousand, are among the most vulnerable and for the most part have found refuge in Dohuk and Arbil.

According to the local authorities in Sulaymaniyah governorate over 22,000 people displaced by the war have been registered around Penjwin, near the Iranian border. However it would appear that for the time being these people are not seeking to cross into Iran, and that numbers are fluctuating as more people arrive while others set off to regain their homes.

ICRC field teams and the local authorities estimate that overall needs so far among the displaced are not high, although a few thousand people are recognized as being vulnerable. Many of the displaced left their homes before the actual outbreak of hostilities, leaving the cities for the villages relatively well prepared. Most have found accommodation with relatives or in public buildings. ICRC teams carry out daily assessments of the living conditions of these people, and provide those in need with emergency assistance including blankets, co oking stoves, heaters, hygiene items and jerry cans. For details of ICRC assistance see our daily Iraq bulletin on this website.

Other displaced civilians in Iraq 

So far, there have been only small-scale population movements towards the borders of Iraq. Third-country nationals heading for Jordan have been received there in a camp, run by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Jordanian Red Crescent. The ICRC provides the use of satellite telephones so that those wishing to contact their relatives can let them know that they are safe. According to the International Federation, 550 people of different nationalities have been through this camp so far (Egyptians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Palestinians).

Coordination with RC/RC Mouvement


Coordination within the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement 

The importance of a strong and well-coordinated response is recognized by all components of the Movement, and intensive concertation of efforts has taken place over the past months between the different components of the Movement to prepare for potential relief operations in Iraq. 

It is recognized that the ICRC is the Movement's lead agency in Iraq and in countries directly involved in the conflict or affected by internal disturbances. It is thus in charge of coordination of the Movement’s relief operations in Iraq, security management regarding the staff of the Movement’s institutions (except host National Societies), and communication on the conflict.

The International Federation is the Movement's lead agency in countries not involved in the conflict, in particular in surrounding countries which are at peace and receiving people fleeing the conflict. The ICRC will be active there in its fields of competence, for example tracing.

The ICRC and the International Federation have set up a steering group in Geneva -- the Geneva Support Group -- to coordinate the overall approach in the various countries affected by the conflict. Once the situation on the ground permits, a coordination group in Baghdad will be in charge of the overall conduct and coordination of Movement activities in Iraq, under ICRC leadership and with the participation of the Interna tional Federation, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, and National Societies taking part in the operation.

In the last months, the ICRC has stepped up its support to the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), to enhance its conflict preparedness capacity. To the extent possible, the IRCS will play a major role in relief distributions.

For its response to humanitarian needs, the ICRC can count on partner National Societies around the world for support in terms of material and human resources. The National Societies have informed the ICRC of their respective capacities to contribute to and take part in a humanitarian operation. The ICRC will promote and facilitate their early involvement, according to an established coordination framework.

Coordination with other humanitarian organizations


Coordination with other humanitarian organizations  

As always in complex emergencies, the ICRC is coordinating its activities with UN agencies as well as some major NGOs, to avoid duplication or gaps in the humanitarian response, while stressing the independence of the ICRC and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement as a whole from the UN system and other actors.

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq is currently based at the UN Humanitarian Hub in Larnaka (Cyprus). The ICRC is also present in Larnaka, participating in a constant dialogue and appropriate coordination with the UN. Furthermore, both at the headquarters and the field levels, the ICRC continues to take part in various multilateral coordination meetings and phone conferences on relevant operational issues, and exchanges information on ongoing activities with organizations and bodies such as: UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM, IASC, OCHA, WHO, UNMAS, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and some NGOs.

Major developments:

 UNHCR: the ICRC and UNHCR have outlined complementary and mutually supportive roles in responding to the needs of displaced persons seeking to cross the borders. A joint document has been signed which provides guidance to ICRC and UNHCR field personnel. The note is intended to:

  • clarify the interaction between the UNHCR and the components of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, especially in the case of cross-border operations;

  • recommend the manner in which the two organizations can complement each other in their protection and assistance efforts;

  • rationalize efforts for the re-establishment of contact between separated family members and for child protection.

 UNICEF: the ICRC has continued its bilateral coordination with UNICEF on issues such as Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) Awareness and procedures regarding separated and unaccompanied children. 

 IOM: Within the UN system, the overall responsibility for IDPs in Iraq lies with the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq. Under his authority and guidance, the IOM will provide registration, camp management and non-food items to groups that may be displaced in the centre and south of Iraq. IOM has also indicated its readiness to take up a lead role in coordinating return transportation. The ICRC has affirmed its mandate in contacts with IOM and UN agencies and expects the IOM and the UN to coordinate any activities for displaced people in Iraq very closely with it.