October 28, 2015 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development, International Conflicts

The Other Refugee Crisis


A flood of Middle East refugees into Europe has held the world's attention and sympathy since August. The European Union recently committed to taking in 120,000 asylum seekers and has increased its budget for migrant issues twice in four months.

Late last month, 19 countries pledged $1.8 billion to U.N. agencies assisting refugees. Most of that money will go to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which are groaning under the strain of hosting millions of refugees. Private companies have pitched in as well, as have private citizens who have distributed care packages and staged welcome rallies.

The butchery of ISIS and Syrian President Bashar Assad has caused massive displacement in another part of the world as well. In the Kurdistan region of Iraq, more than a million Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis are sheltering from the Islamic State group. The crisis unfolding there has implications as profound as the one in Europe and other areas of the Middle East, but it has drawn far less attention and aid.


In 2012, Syrians fleeing their country's brutal civil war began arriving in significant numbers in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous enclave of ethnic Kurds in the north of the country. Two years later, ISIS vaulted out of northern Syria and swept across swathes of Iraq, scattering millions of Iraqis. Many of them, in addition to fleeing to Europe, made their way to the Kurdistan region and the protection of its military forces, the peshmerga, which have, for now at least, turned back ISIS's attempts to overrun northern Iraq's last sanctuary.

In contrast to many countries, the Kurdistan region has not hesitated to accept large flows of displaced people. Part of this is because nearly all of the Syrians who fled to Kurdistan are ethnic Kurds themselves. So too are members of several religious minorities sheltering in Kurdistan, such as the Kaka'i and the Yazidi, who faced annihilation last year at the hands of ISIS before escaping to Kurdistan.

However, the Kurds have also welcomed non-Kurds fleeing ISIS. Arab Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the latter considered heretics by ISIS, have found protection in the territory, as have the Turkmen, Shabaks, and Assyrian Christians, who have been virtually cleansed from their ancestral home in the Nineveh Plains region.

The cost of caring for so many dispossessed people is straining Kurdistan's modest resources. Its estimated 2013 GDP was $25 billion, compared to Europe's 2014 GDP that was more than $16 trillion. Its oil-dependent finances were already being squeezed due to plunging global oil prices, and there is the cost of fighting a war along a more than 600-mile front. The regional government also accuses the Iraqi government of withholding for more than a year its federal budget share, which Baghdad had already slashed in February 2014. The Kurdistan region, with a native population of only 5.4 million, now hosts more than a million refugees -- many of whom require shelter, food, and medical care.

The Kurds receive aid from a number of countries, and the United States, by far the most generous donor to the current humanitarian crisis in Iraq, recently pledged an additional $56 million. Yet it is not enough to make up the gap. Late last month, the Kurdish government warned that its ability to provide further humanitarian relief faced "total collapse."

Meanwhile, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports a 63 percent funding shortfall for 2015 operations in Iraq. And more than 30 percent of pledged funds for the U.N.'s Humanitarian Strategic Response Plan for Iraq, which includes aid for internally displaced persons (IDP), have yet to be delivered.

Winter and its sub-zero temperatures are fast approaching, promising further punishment for the estimated 25,000 IDP households that live in unfinished or abandoned buildings or informal settlements. If these and other displaced people and refugees cannot have their basic needs met, they may be tempted to try the long, dangerous journey to Europe, adding to a problem already stymying that continent.

More than just humanitarian concerns are at stake. The peshmerga are the only consistently effective ground forces battling ISIS in Iraq at the moment. Resources the Kurds must divert to care for those who have sought their protection are resources they cannot use to fight the terror group. As the United States gropes for an effective counter to ISIS, bolstering in this way the peshmerga's ability to continue battling it is a no-brainer.

The refugees and IDPs in Kurdistan are no less deserving of the world's aid simply because they fled in a different direction from those who are making their way to Europe. Without more assistance, these hunted groups will suffer further, even as they continue to burden a staunch U.S. ally that is resisting and rolling back a mortal enemy of the civilized world.

The international community has recently started to understand the urgency of the refugee crisis affecting Europe. It must awaken to the consequences in northern Iraq as well.



-A foreign policy analyst for Heritage Foundation, Joshua Meservey specializes in issues affecting Africa and the Middle East. He tweets at @jmeservey.

About the Author

Joshua Meservey Policy Analyst, Africa and the Middle East
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

This piece originally appeared in Real Clear World