Last week, as part of an official delegation, I visited Erbil and Northern Iraq, communities overwhelmed with the humanitarian crisis brought on by the belligerent actions of the so-called Islamic State.
The situation there is indeed dire. After seeing first-hand the refugee camps and provisional facilities for medical care and education, we came away convinced that more must be done to raise awareness among EU decision-makers and officials and also at the member state level of the seriousness of the situation. The extremely difficult plight of these persecuted communities requires a greater contribution from the EU and the Member States.
First, a little background. Before ISIS occupied the region, approximately 1.8 million Christians called it home. According to some of the more optimistic estimates, only 400,000 Christians remain in Iraq today, the vast majority having now fled the persecution.
In the recent period, the area of Erbil has received around 200,000 refugees, most of whom live in provisional camps, under spartan conditions. The local Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate attempts to provide food, water and basic shelter to some 13,000 families. How to provide education for the nearly 100,000 children who cannot continue their studies at home has become another daunting challenge.
We visited a number of projects funded by the pontifical relief organisation called Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and managed by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate of Erbil. Father Andrzej Halemba, ACN’s Middle East project director, led our delegation, which also included ACN’s director for Germany, Karin Fenbert, and regional director for France, Loic Bondu.
Our host, His Excellency, Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Erbil, introduced the aid projects of his church, providing detailed insight into the needs they address and the results they have achieved. Since October 2014, ACN donors have given more than 4 million euros to support humanitarian assistance, an outstanding example of the capacities of churches to help people in need.
Head of the local office of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), Javier Rio Navarro, also received the delegation. He reviewed ECHO’s activities and discussed how to better involve the Chaldean Patriarchate in its projects.
The delegation set out on this mission to get a first-hand look at the situation on the ground for a more realistic picture of what these persecuted communities are suffering. With a better understanding of the most pressing needs of the refugees, the delegation also wanted to determine what more the EU could do to improve the humanitarian situation. Our visit was preceded by our meeting with High Representative Federica Mogherini in Strasbourg in January where we reviewed the EU’s activities in Iraq. We agreed to look for solutions for the cooperation of the Parliament, the Commission and the European External Action Service for humanitarian purposes in the region.
We came away from our visit to these hard-hit communities convinced that we must not allow other international challenges to completely distract us from the gravity of the conflicts in the Middle East. It is our responsibility in Europe to help the ancient Christian communities in Iraq in their struggle for survival. We need to encourage our governments, churches and especially our European institutions to increase relief activities for providing financial aid, food or equipment in the region.