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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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Emergency humanitarian aid for the Iraqi peoples


During 1991, the plight of the Kurds in northern Iraq hit the headlines. While refugee crises are all too common in the world today, the particular circumstances of the Kurdish flight from their homes - the speed of the evacuation, the huge numbers of people involved and the uncompromising terrain - combined to create an unprecedented situation. In this article, the author, who is a principal administrator in the recently-established European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), describes the prompt reaction of the Community in mobilising assistance for the refugees in the mountains.

In the confused political situation following the end of the Gulf War, there were various uprisings by disaffected populations of Iraq against the government of Saddam Hussein. When these failed, some 1500 000 ethnic Kurds fled the country, mainly to Turkey and Iran, in appalling conditions over rough terrain. In so doing, they presented the international community with an unparalleled humanitarian challenge.

In the situation immediately prior to the Gulf War, the European Community had already been active in helping foreign workers in the area return to their countries of origin, with a budget already larger than the normal annual limit of ECU 12m for emergency aid to non-ACP countries. Now the Community was faced with a real challenge to its traditional ability to get humanitarian aid to where it was needed fast.

On 3 April 1992 the Commission approved a grant of ECU 5m from its emergency aid budget for the displaced and refugee Iraqi populations. Within 36 hours the first planes had left carrying food, medicines and blankets, but as the full extent of the disaster became apparent, it was equally clear that the eight allocations made, which had exhausted the budget, would be far from sufficient.

Speedy response

With remarkable speed, the Commission, Parliament and Council, working together, completed the procedure for reallocating funds within the Community budget. The whole process took only 72 hours and on 12 April the Commission was able to grant a further ECU 100m for the same humanitarian needs.

As these funds were granted from the emergency aid budgetary line, they would be deployed by Commission services with long experience of fulfilling the mandate 'to save human lives, and to ensure minimum human living conditions'. However, the size and speed of the operation also meant drafting extra staff from other units, employing new methods of working and finding new partners. As a reminder of the importance of the operation, if any was needed, an interdepartmental working party was set up. This met every morning under the chairmanship of the Commission's Secretary-General, David Williamson.

The Commission's emergency aid services had long worked with various United Nations agencies, notably UNHCR, the Red Cross and Crescent family and European nongovernmental organisations in countries where the Commission had an established delegation. This crisis, however, was different. When the Kurds fled in vast numbers to Turkey and Iran, there was only a small Commission delegation in Ankara, well away from the Kurdish areas, and no representative at all in Iran. Negotiations had to be concluded with the latter authorities to have a temporary representative in Teheran, and contract staff were sent to the border areas in both Iran and Turkey. They were to coordinate Community and other international aid, and also to check as far as possible whether Commission-financed actions were being carried out as agreed.

The crisis has also lasted for longer than expected. One Commission head of mission transferring between two African postings set out on a brief mission to Iran with an overnight bag. By the time he left three months later, his wardrobe had expanded slightly!


The coordination between donors took place not only in the field, but also between the headquarters, and the Commission co-financed Member State actions, including the humanitarian aspects of their various armed forces. Such was the pressure and need that the Commission even did direct buying and delivery of supplies, and, as the programme became operative inside Iraqi borders, financially supported the provision of UN guards to ensure the delivery of supplies and the safety of workers.

Such innovations used by the Commission's emergency aid services, and brought about by the weight of the emergency, are obviously being taken into account in the establishment and development of ECHO.

One of the difficulties of the programme was the fluidity of the situation. 1 500 000 people left their homes to trek over the mountains in a matter of days. With the establishment of the safe haven area by the allied forces near the Turkish border, the vast majority who had fled to Turkey had returned inside Iraqi borders within two months; within six months a maximum of 50 000 people remained outside Iraq, but not all had been able to return to their places of origin. Even where they had, often there were only piles of rubble to welcome them.

By the end of July, the whole of the ECU 105m had been allocated in 53 separate decisions. Over 300 special flights had been paid for by the Commission and over one million blankets and 35 000 tonnes of food delivered.

Together with the Member States some ECU 500 000 000 had been provided for the Iraqi peoples in need, approximately 60% of the total world contribution. However, such had been the rapidity of the population movements that there was underspending on several programmes, and the strict monitoring procedures allowed for the reallocation of these funds. Equally, while the bulk of the funds were for the Kurds who had fled in the north, some funds had always been given for the Shiites in the south and even, under strict UN control, to other vulnerable groups throughout the country.

Memorandum of understanding

The implementation of the programme inside Iraq was helped by the existence of a 'Memorandum of Understanding' (MOW) between the United Nations and the Baghdad government. Community action could therefore continue and in April 1992 the Commission granted a further ECU 5m to aid the Kurdish peoples. While no longer front-page news, the basic problems for those in both the north and south of Iraq remained. One innovation during this period was a plan to demine areas on the Iraq-Iran border to allow the returnees to cultivate their fields without danger.

However, as the summer wore on, the public again became aware of the situation in Iraq as one of the three major humanitarian crises in the world. This took place at a time when the position of the UN had become weaker because no new MOU could be negotiated beyond 30 June 1992 and there were physical attacks on UN and NGO relief workers.

By the time this article is in print, the situation may have changed radically yet again. The UN Secretary-General is among these who fear the worst. Nevertheless its past record in this, and other areas of crisis, is such that one can be sure that the Community and its specialised office ECHO will be playing a full role in any emergency humanitarian needs.