A former UN relief coordinator says Iraqi and Syrian refugees pose the biggest humanitarian crisis of our generation

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: It isn’t just Britain of course concerned about the rise of global terrorism. Earlier today, the UN held an emergency debate to discuss the crisis in Iraq. Officials learned of “Acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale” allegedly perpetrated by fighters from the militant group ISIS. Jan Egeland used to lead the humanitarian relief efforts for the UN and he’s currently in northern Iraq, where he’s touring and assessing refugee camps Jan Egeland: Every 5 minutes, you hear stories from families who tell about witnessing massacres, witnessing neighbors, families, relatives being massacred. They all tell stories about also young girls and others being abducted. Some of these may end up in human trafficking to Europe, perhaps North America. So the ultimate irony is that Europe and North America, which is not very welcoming to receive refugees may end up having trafficked people from these regions. It is this which is the Syrian catastrophe and the Iraqi one, which are now one big war and exodus, is the biggest challenge on our watch, on this generation’s watch. And no, we’re not meeting up to the challenge at all. Werman: Your notion that this is the biggest and most consequential humanitarian crisis of our time - connect the dots for us. Tell us why this is the biggest. Egeland: Because it has engulfed so many millions of people in a war without any laws, any norms at all. I’ve been in and out of humanitarian work and peace work and human rights work since I was 19, which is nearly 40 years ago. In the 1990’s, we had a comparable situation because that was the age of the genocides. So more people were killed in the Balkans and in Rwanda at that time than are being killed now but they were not even close to affecting so many people that were then driven away, forced to flee, lost livelihoods, lost hope. That’s what’s so tremendous here: 10 million people minimum have become refugees or displaced in or from Syria and we have another 2-3 million in Iraq with the new and the old refugees who have been displaced. It’s beyond relief, really. And that comes on top with all of the other things that are happening elsewhere in the world, from Gaza to south Sudan to Central African Republic to Somalia to Afghanistan and what not. Werman: So has the West adequately addressed this humanitarian crisis? Egeland: I don’t think the West has at all addressed it adequately and I would question has the Arab world done that? What about Russia? What about China? There are so many who could have done much, much more. The powers involved, and that includes Saudis, Iranians, Americans, the Turks, many others, would have to sit down and say “Can we please now stop undermining each other and let’s pull together.” It sounds totally naive but that’s what has to be done. There is a lot of proxy war here. Some nations are willing to fight each other to the last Syrian, really. Werman: Just today, news came that Iraqi forces took the northern town of Amerli from ISIS fighters. Do you think that that’s a sign the tide may be shifting in northern Iraq? Egeland: Well it could be that some advances will now have stopped and some sieges can be lifted. What’s not over is displacement and conflict. The front lines may now change, they may fall back but there will be more war and there will be more killing and it’s the civilians who are paying the price. Werman: Jan Egeland is the former United Nations relief coordinator. He now heads the Norwegian Refugee Council. He joined us from Erbil in northern Iraq. Mr. Egeland, thank you very much. Egeland: Thank you for having me.