U.S. Humanitarian Assistance in Response to the Iraq Crisis

Kelly Clements
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Washington, DC
December 12, 2014

Thank you, Chairman McGovern and Chairman Wolf, for holding this important hearing on humanitarian assistance for those affected by violence in Iraq and for your personal leadership and support for your humanitarian efforts. Given the close relationship between events in Iraq and Syria, I will also address our humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria.

The international community is struggling to cope not only with wars in Syria and Iraq, but with major crises in other parts of the world, including the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Gaza, Ukraine, Somalia, Yemen, and many others. Not to mention Ebola.

Right now, there are more refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons than at any time since World War II. That number exceeds 50 million people.

Even as global humanitarian assistance rose to a record $22 billion in 2013, the needs created by these complex, protracted crises continue to outpace the international community’s collective ability to respond. UN humanitarian appeals for both Iraq and Syria remain severely under-resourced.

The Syrian crisis – the most catastrophic crisis we face in the world today – has resulted in the deaths of more than 200,000 Syrians, the vast majority of which, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry, happened at the hands of the Syrian regime. The conflict has uprooted nearly half of Syria’s pre-war population. The Asad regime and extremist groups continue to target innocent civilians, who are suffering from food shortages, inadequate shelter, and preventable diseases. More than 7 million Syrians have been internally displaced, and more than 3 million have fled to neighboring countries, many of whom will likely be unable or unwilling to return to Syria for years to come.

I recently served as the Acting Deputy Chief of Mission at our Embassy in Beirut, and I can tell you that concern in Lebanon, and in the region, about increased refugee flows is palpable. The governments of neighboring states are straining to cope with this massive influx. In Lebanon, one in four residents is now a refugee. In Jordan, housing is in such short supply that rents have doubled. In Lebanon and Jordan, schools are running double shifts, hospitals are overcrowded, and municipal services cannot keep up. Economic growth has slowed and social tensions between host communities and Syrians are rising.

In Iraq, ruthless attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have left over 5 million people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

This includes some 2 million displaced throughout the country, in this year alone. Many families have been forced to flee multiple times as the frontlines of the conflict have shifted. As the Regional Director of the UN Refugee Agency told me recently, Iraqi IDPs have been more mobile than any other group he has worked with in his 30-year career. ISIL’s depredations have also prompted many to seek safety outside the country, and this year, the number of Iraqi refugees in the region doubled.

The needs massive – 20 million people are affected by conflict. While the Iraq and Syria conflicts differ, the challenges are regional and integrated, and our humanitarian responses must be as well.

The International Response

With the help of the United States and other international donors, UN agencies and international and non-governmental organizations are saving lives.

In Iraq, UN-led international relief efforts have distributed desperately needed supplies – food, shelter, and basic household items like blankets and winter clothing. International assistance has also reached millions of Syrians in need. This year, Syrians received food and safe drinking water, had medical checkups, and received polio vaccinations for their children. In neighboring countries, the UN and its partners helped over 350,000 children enroll in school, triple the number enrolled last year.


While the scale of humanitarian aid delivered to victims of both of these crises is unprecedented, humanitarian needs are outpacing the capabilities of donor governments and the international humanitarian system.

In Iraq, schools, unfinished buildings, and warehouses are filled with families driven from their homes. Over 1 million Iraqis still lack adequate shelter for the winter and basic items such as blankets and kerosene they will need to keep warm. And even though the World Food Program is providing food to 1.4 million Iraqis, almost 3 million Iraqis are estimated to lack adequate nutrition.

In Syria, almost 10 million people are food insecure and over 11 million are in need of clean water and sanitation. Eighty-five percent of Syrian refugees live outside of camps, most in sub-standard shelter. And at least half of all refugee children are not enrolled in school.

Next Steps

President Obama has underscored the importance of providing Syrians and Iraqis with humanitarian aid and we have been urging other donors to increase their contributions to UN-led relief efforts. Donors have been generous. The European Commission, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Canada, Germany, Norway, and Japan have made significant contributions to UN-led relief operations for Syrians and Iraqis.

We applaud, for instance, the generosity of Saudi Arabia, whose $500 million contribution to the UN in the early stages of the crisis this year was absolutely critical to providing life-saving assistance to those who fled ISIL. Kuwait, for its part, has hosted three Top Donors Meetings for Syrians and has given $800 million to provide desperately needed food, shelter, and medical supplies.

Getting relief into Syria is essential to slow the exodus of refugees and ease the pressure on Syria’s neighbors. But we also need borders to remain open to those who have no choice but to flee for their lives.

And as governments in the region are called upon to do everything in their power to aid those in harm’s way, they need our steadfast support to help cope with refugee populations that are likely to remain in neighboring countries for years to come. My bureau has announced $10 million in new funding for UN Development Program initiatives specifically targeting communities hosting refugees. Giving humanitarian assistance for development purposes is unprecedented for us; but working with host governments to keep borders open and meet their needs is essential to ensuring the protection of refugees. At the recent Berlin Ministerial on Syrian refugees, we called on other countries to also think creatively about how to address this complex crisis and coordinate their humanitarian and development assistance programs.

As we face these historic challenges, U.S. leadership, humanitarian diplomacy, and resources remain critical to the effort. Thirty percent of international humanitarian assistance marshaled in response to the Syrian crisis has come from us - the United States - with more than $3 billion in aid over three years, including nearly $135 million recently in funding for emergency food. Our contributions to aid Iraqi civilians in Fiscal Year 2014 totaled more than $208 million.

Our refugee admissions program also extends help and hope to those displaced and endangered by the violence in Syria and Iraq. Since 2007, we have resettled more than 115,000 Iraqis.

In recent months, the United States has received referrals for nearly 9,000 Syrian refugees. Roughly a thousand new referrals come from the United Nations refugee agency each month, and more Syrian refugees arrived in the United States in the first two months of this year than arrived in all of last year. We expect that number to continue to climb.

The U.S. government will use every means available to protect and assist vulnerable Iraqis and Syrians. Failure to do so could endanger millions of innocent civilians. But the needs are vast and U.S. leadership remains vital. Thank you and I welcome your questions.