The news from northern Iraq is terrifying in detail, and staggering in scale. No food, no water, no shelter, tens of thousands uprooted by a murderous mob of Islamic State (IS) terrorists, too many out of contact and out of reach. At times like these the UK must play a leading role in helping those in need. Our capacity to assist in humanitarian crises is immense – we must now put the full force of that experience and expertise behind the Iraqi people, for many of them are in desperate need.
After a week of heightening violence in Ninewa Province, northern Iraq, IS have been gaining ground - leaving hundreds of thousands displaced, in a region already home to almost a quarter of a million Syrian refugees and nearly 400,000 internally displaced Kurds.
On 3 August, IS fighters took control of the districts of Sinjar and Tel Afar. The chaos that ensued saw 200,000 Yazidi and Christians forced from their homes. Four days later, IS fighters took Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town, and its surroundings forcing a further 200,000 to flee. Mount Sinjar is now home to 50,000, half of whom are children. The reports that have emerged of mass graves, beheadings and systematic rape are not easy to independently verify but the signs of a man-made humanitarian crisis are undeniable.
President Obama was right to authorise air strikes to prevent the slaughter of these terrified and vulnerable people and to support the humanitarian air drops of food and water, and Labour support that action. The humanitarian priority now has to be providing immediate life-saving assistance including water, food, shelter and medicine for those who have been forced to flee their homes. This government is right to use the RAF to deliver essential supplies to the Yazidis, and they are right to release an £8m package of support for those who have fled IS terrorists. But there’s more we can do.
First, given the grave concerns regarding the imminent danger faced by minorities in Iraq, the UK Government should focus their response on the issue of discrimination against minority groups. All of those in need must have equal access to protection and aid.
Second, additional capacity and funding is desperately needed – the UK must not just do our bit, but invest real political capital in rallying the international community to fund urgent support the people of Iraq.
And third, the UK must lead international efforts to provide that assistance and funding through all means available, including through the use of any appropriate UK military capabilities.
Further, we have to make the protection of women and girls a priority - as the crisis drags on, the position of women and girls becomes all the more desperate. Around 250,000 women, including nearly 60,000 pregnant women, are in urgent need of care; around 20,000 women and girls face increased risk of sexual violence. The international community has to do all it can to ensure they are protected.
And coordination is key – northern Iraq is in chaos, access to IS areas is impossible, assessing the rest of the region impossibly complex. The continuous movement of displaced peoples and the all pervading fog of war mean many have not received the water, food and medicine they desperately need. Clear command and control of resources is difficult but vital. Firm leadership structures must be established and followed, and funding gaps can identified, assessed and addressed.
No-one doubts that the situation in northern Iraq is grave, and the truth is for those in desperate need is that there is no quick fix, no magic wand, but we can help alleviate some of the suffering. But we must not find ourselves wondering how this humanitarian crisis spiralled further and further out of control. With the resources and capabilities at the world's disposal these people cannot be abandoned.