Sunday, September 09, 2007

Displaced, poor face further deprivation as Ramadan begins

Above: Iraqis receive food rations for last year's Ramadan. Ramadan is the month during which the Quran was revealed, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, established in the year 638. The start date is usually different for Sunnis than for Shia by a day or two. The third pillar of Islam, which is fasting, is practiced during this month. Ramadan is derived from an Arabic word for intense heat and scorched ground. During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to put maximum effort into following the teachings of Islam as well as refraining from anger, envy, and greed. However, violence has increased each Ramadan since the U.S. invasion.

IRAQ: Food rationing system failing as Ramadan approaches

The monthly food rationing system on which millions of Iraqis depend is not working properly, according to officials. They warn that delays in food deliveries will have a serious impact on those fasting during the upcoming holy Islamic month of Ramadan (beginning around 13 September), when Muslims go without food and drink from dawn to sunset.

“There are many reasons why the monthly food ration system is not working very well,” Muhammad Ala’a Jabber, director of the west Baghdad office for delivering food rations, said. “There is a shortage of food products, the available products are of bad quality and sometimes are expired and there is a delay in delivery to the distribution offices.”

According to Jabber, Iraq’s food rationing system has continued to worsen since an escalation of sectarian violence began in February 2006. But in the past four months, he said, the problem has reached critical levels.

“It is rare to find items such as baby formula among rationed food. This never happened under Saddam Hussein’s regime when it was common to see an abundance of baby formula,” Jabber said.

“The rice which is available is of bad quality and the beans might require hours to cook. The quantity of flour and tea given to each family has decreased and at least 20 percent of families in search of food rations return home empty handed,” he added.

Food trucks looted

The Ministry of Trade, which is responsible for the delivery of food rations, said insecurity has been the main reason for the shortages in food ration items.

“Many trucks are looted on their way to Baghdad and other cities. Sometimes there is a delay in delivering products from outside the country but we are working hard to keep the programme functioning properly,” Abdel-Aziz Haydar, a media officer at the trade ministry, said.

The monthly food rationing system was introduced by the late former President Saddam Hussein to offset the impact of sweeping trade sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN after the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Food products were paid for by Iraqi oil which was exchanged under UN administration.

The food system, which is credited with saving millions of Iraqis from starvation, worked until 2003 when Saddam was ousted by US-led forces. Under Saddam, food rations were nearly double the quantity of today’s and consisted of good quality food, recipients and specialists say.

Rations smaller and worse

“All items remaining in the ration have been reduced in quantity by nearly 35 percent,” Professor Muhammad Ezidin, an analyst at Baghdad University, said. “The programme has seriously deteriorated and with the increase in the number of displaced families, each day they face more difficulties to get their food ration, bringing starvation closer to Iraqi families.”

Sinan Youssef, a senior official in the strategy department at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, said that about five million Iraqis depend on the monthly food ration programme but only 60 percent of this number is able to avail of it, leaving two million people in dire poverty.

“These people are mostly displaced families or those who are living in tense zones where the distribution programme is hard to implement,” Youssef added.

According to the last report by Oxfam and a coalition of Iraqi groups, including the NGO Coordination Committee of Iraq (NCCI), up to eight million Iraqis require immediate emergency aid, with nearly half this number living in "absolute poverty”.

“Unemployment has topped a staggering 68 percent and inflation has pushed up prices by 70 percent since February 2006,” Youssef said. “Most of these families have a daily income of under US$1.8 per day but at least two million Iraqis have an income of less than one dollar per day.”

Ezidin gave examples of how prices have risen. “A year ago we were able to buy a can of powdered milk for children for less than US$0.3 but today - if you find powdered milk in the market - you have to pay at least US$4. This is an absurdity which the government is ignoring, leaving shopkeepers to put up their own prices without any control,” Ezidin said. “Ramadan is about to start and thousands of people will fast and will have no food to break their fast with.”

Abu Akram, 32, a father of four in Baghdad, does not know how he will cope. “I’ve had a delay in my food ration for more than two months. My children are sick, suffering from malnutrition and I’m unemployed. I don’t know where to go to get money to feed them.”

From IRIN News

Iraq: Plight Of Displaced Worsens

Four years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi refugee crisis has become one of the world's most severe humanitarian issues.

The UN estimates that more than 2.2 million Iraqis have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Jordan and Syria. In addition, there are another 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Iraq's borders.

While the continuing violence shows no signs of abating, it would be safe to assume that the number refugees and IDPs will continue to grow, worsening an already bleak situation.

New Syrian Visa Requirements

Since the Iraq conflict began and Iraqis began fleeing, Syria has been the only country not to impose strict regulations to limit the number of Iraqi refugees that can enter. Jordan, which hosts up to 750,000 Iraqis, has largely limited access to new arrivals.

Since the triple suicide bombing in Amman in November 2005 that killed 60 people, Iraqis seeking to enter Jordan now must be over 40 or under 20 and have sufficient funds to support themselves while staying in the kingdom.

According to UN figures, Syria is currently hosting 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and the Syrian government has indicated that between 30,000-60,000 Iraqis enter Syria every month. The sheer number of Iraqis has become a huge burden on the country's economy and infrastructure. Damascus has estimated that the refugees are costing the state approximately $1 billion a year.

This strain, coupled with the international community's failure to provide adequate financial assistance to Syria, has forced Damascus to take stringent measures to curtail the number of Iraqis pouring into the country. Currently, the country technically has an "open-door" policy that allows most Iraqis to easily enter Syria. Iraqis are initially granted a three-month visa that is easily renewable.

However, starting on September 10 a new visa system will be implemented that will grant visas only to Iraqis involved in the economic, commercial, and scientific sectors. These restrictions will almost certainly limit the number of Iraqis allowed in. Furthermore, the new documents will only be single-entry visas valid for three months and qualified Iraqis must obtain them from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad.

The new visa requirement has created concern among human-rights groups and humanitarian agencies that Iraqis will be turned away if they do not have a visa or are unable meet the criteria to obtain the new documents. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has urged Damascus not to turn back desperate Iraqis who are fleeing to Syria to escape the violence.

Moreover, there are also concerns that those Iraqis that have the current renewable three-month visa will be forcibly expelled from Syria once their visas expire or if they try to renew them. The UNHCR said it has so far received assurances from Syrian officials that there would be no forced returns.

Poor Conditions At IDP Camps

Iraqis who have fled their homes but lack the financial means to leave the country are essentially trapped in overcrowded, makeshift refugee camps with poor sanitary conditions. The Iraqi government lacks the funds to provide adequate resources to assist those in the camps and the perilous security situation in many parts of Iraq has prevented international humanitarian organizations from reaching some camps.

According to the UNHCR, many of the camps are situated far from towns or cities, and residents have to search for sources of water. The Iraqi Aid Association, a local nongovernmental organization, received reports that peoples at camps in Ba'qubah and Al-Najaf resorted to taking water from nearby open sewage drains, using cloths to filter it, and then drinking the water without boiling it.

Poor sanitation can lead to outbreaks of waterborne diseases. The Kurdish-administered regions of northern Iraq declared a state of emergency after a cholera outbreak in Al-Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. Dr. Juan Abdallah, a senior official in Kurdistan's Health Ministry, said the outbreak was the first of its kind in nearly a decade and may have resulted from the poor sanitary conditions at IDP camps, IRIN reported on August 30.

"The bad sanitation in Iraq, especially on the outskirts of cities where IDPs are camped, has put people at serious risk," Abdallah said. "In Al- Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, at least 42 percent of the population has no access to clean water and proper sewage systems."

Some IDP camps have become so overcrowded, such as the Al-Manathera camp outside the holy city of Al-Najaf, that it had to declare itself closed to new arrivals in early August. Local officials said they had no choice, because the camp lacked the resources to assist new arrivals.

A recent announcement by the UNHCR on August 28 indicated that the number of Iraqis being driven from their homes due to violence is rising, to a monthly rate of over 60,000. These grim statistics indicate that more funds and resources are desperately needed to assist Iraqi refugees and IDPs.

While Jordan and Syria have taken in the largest amount of refugees, they have bitterly complained that their respective infrastructure and resources cannot maintain such a large population indefinitely. Syria's new visa system is the latest indication that Iraq's regional neighbors can no longer shoulder the burden, and need more help from the international community.

From RFE

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