WASHINGTON — With the crisis in Iraq, four countries are now experiencing severe humanitarian emergencies involving the displacement of millions of people, something experts and relief groups say hasn’t been seen in decades.
Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan are all going through Level 3 emergencies, the United Nations’ highest classification of a humanitarian crisis.
It is the first time that the world has experienced four simultaneous emergencies of this caliber since at least World War II. Some experts note that the number of displaced people is worse than after the Rwanda genocide of 1994, during which 500,000 to 1 million people were killed and up to 2 million people fled their homes.
“In terms of major humanitarian responses, this is about as big as I can remember,” said Jarrod Goentzel, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Humanitarian Response Lab.
Just in Iraq, about 1.2 million people have been displaced, according to the American Red Cross. In Syria, the displacement toll is 9 million.
The diamond-rich Central African Republic has 2.5 million people in need, according to U.N. estimates. In that country, a rebel coalition has been fighting the government in a conflict that has dragged on since the ousting of President Ange-Felix Patasse in 2003. The conflict has become increasingly sectarian since then, pitting Muslims against Christians.
And in nearby South Sudan, clashes between rebel groups led by its former vice president, Riek Machar, who opposes President Salva Kiir, have persisted almost since the country achieved autonomy in 2011. The oil-rich country of 3.8 million faces a myriad of problems, including potential famine.
“We are definitely stretched,” said Chris Palusky, senior director of humanitarian and emergency affairs for World Vision USA, one of many organizations responding to all Level 3 emergencies that concentrates on providing food, water and shelter to children and women.
“We all have a fear in the back of our minds. What if there’s a big earthquake?” he said. “It’s going to be hard to meet the needs of those that are affected by the disaster, because there is so much going on right now.”
Even without natural disasters, some experts note that finding qualified aid workers could become a problem if these simultaneous emergencies are long-lasting. “(Aid workers) can be there for a period of time, but they need to rotate out because it’s an intense environment and stress levels are high,” said Goentzel.
That is difficult to do given the limited pool of workers. “There is always a limited supply of people who are trained and experienced, and it’s not easy to train people overnight,” said Pinar Keskinocak, co-director of the Center for Health and Humanitarian Logistics at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
A potential shortfall of trained workers is only half of the problem.
According to the U.N., all humanitarian plans are deeply underfunded.
The U.N. plan for Iraq would cost $660 million, but only $35 million has been committed. Not counting its refugee plan, Syria humanitarian efforts need another $2 billion for a $3.1 billion relief plan there.
“The need is really escalating to catastrophic levels,” said Save the Children spokeswoman Holly Frew, who just returned from South Sudan, a country that has only 30 percent of its refugee response plan funded. Central African Republic’s strategic response plan is less than halfway funded.
“While donors give generously every year, humanitarian needs continue to grow at a much faster rate than funding allocations can keep pace with,” Amanda Pitt, spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in an email.
Pitt noted that aid makes a life-saving difference for “people who are not getting enough food, children not getting clean drinking water, families not getting shelter, mothers not getting vital medical treatment. It is as simple as that.”
The need is underscored by the fact that the worldwide number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people exceeds 50 million for the first time since World War II. Most of these displaced refugees come from countries affected by years of conflict like Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even Colombia.
Pinar from Georgia Tech attributes the increasing number of overall refugees partly to changing weather patterns and the increasing number of people living in high-density areas vulnerable to natural disasters. However, she noted that in conflicts “there are political issues.”
Natural disasters tend to be short lived, and once they pass they allow for recovery to happen. Conflicts, on the other hand, tend to last longer and involve political complications and violence that relief organizations can’t control.