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Flight ban crippling Kurdistan’s economy, humanitarian aid, health: report

By Rudaw 3/1/2018
A Kurdistan flag hangs in Erbil International Airport on September 27, 2017, two days before the flight ban came into effect. Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP
A Kurdistan flag hangs in Erbil International Airport on September 27, 2017, two days before the flight ban came into effect. Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Baghdad’s international flight ban on the Kurdistan Region has had a crippling effect on the Region’s economy, health of the residents, and deliverance of humanitarian aid, the KRG stated in a new report. 

“The ban has directly affected the citizens, but not the leadership as repeatedly claimed by the imposing authorities,” stated the KRG’s Ministry of Interior’s office responsible for humanitarian aid – the Joint Crisis Coordination Centre (JCC).

In September, 219 tons of humanitarian aid – health and non-food items – were brought into the Region through Erbil and Sulaimani airports. 

After the flight ban came into effect on September 29, that number dropped dramatically. In October, a mere two tons of aid was brought in through the airports and none at all in November and December, the JCC stated. 

When introducing the flight ban, Baghdad insisted that humanitarian aid would not be affected. The Kurdistan Region is hosting over 273,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, and 1.19 million displaced Iraqis. 

According to the JCC, most NGOs are unable to pay for private cargo flights. As a result, smaller amounts of aid are being brought in through “routes which are unsafe.”

Extra transportation and operational costs means smaller portions of resources are reaching the people in need of aid. 

“UN agencies and humanitarian organizations have expressed mounting concerns over the impact of the ban on movement of humanitarian staff and supplies,” JCC reported.

Many of the foreign staff of NGOs who left the Kurdistan Region had to pay fines in Baghdad and cannot return because of “lengthy delays in issuance of visas or intentional refusal by the Iraqi embassies abroad to issue visas.”

Bringing general cargo into the Region has also become difficult under the flight ban, leading to rising prices of market goods. 

Cargo arriving at Erbil airport dropped from 2,500 tons to just 10 after the flight ban, and in Sulaimani it has dropped to almost zero, down from 550 tons, according to JCC.

“Roads and transportation infrastructure in the region are damaged and insufficient to satisfy the region’s trade and commercial activities. The cargo embargo has therefore far-reaching consequences on the economy of the region,” the report stated. 

The JCC also reported the deaths of 15 thalassemia patients due to lack of medicine or needed medical care. 

Thalassemia is an inherited blood disorder. According to JCC, of 3,600 thalassemia patients in the Region, only 211 have been able to travel abroad for necessary treatment since the flight ban. Their health is put at further risk because Baghdad has failed to send the Region the medicines needed to treat the disease. 

Peshmerga injured in the war against ISIS have also been unable to travel abroad for health care. The JCC documented 1,320 individual Peshmerga who are suffering medically under the flight ban. 

The Kurdistan Region, which had marketed itself as a safe tourist destination under the slogan ‘The other Iraq,’ has seen its tourism sector hobbled by the flight ban. 

The number of tourists arriving in the Region dropped by 72 percent in October 2017 over the year before, and some 12,000 jobs in the travel industry have been lost. 

While domestic flights are still operating, many people do not want to travel through Baghdad. The JCC noted reports of violations against travelers at Baghdad airport. Many Kurds are afraid to take that route, “some are banned from doing so and others fear for their safety and dignity,” JCC stated. 

As a result, those who need to travel are departing the Region overland to Turkey and from there taking international flights. The increased time and money, however, has made it difficult for many to travel. 

JCC notes that Iraqi Airways continues to operate, confirming that the Erbil and Sulaimani airports are safe and fully functional. This means that the purpose of the ban “is to collapse the stability and to harm the economy of the region by isolating it from the rest of the world,” the KRG office stated, stressing that the ban is a violation of the constitution. 

In late December, the flight ban, first imposed as one of several punitive measures Baghdad took in response to Kurdistan’s vote for independence, was extended for another two months until February 28, 2018. An Iraqi official, however, has said that the ban has no expiry date and will remain in place until Baghdad chooses to lift it. 

Iraq’s Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji, in a meeting with a Kurdistan Region delegation on December 25, said he would support Kurdistan’s call for the flight ban to be lifted and would raise the matter at the Council of Ministers.

Baghdad insists that it must have federal control over the Kurdistan Region’s international border points, including the airports. The KRG leadership, while condemning the flight ban, has stated they are prepared to discuss the matter and resolve it as per Iraq’s constitution along with other issues existing between the two governments.

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