As Iraqi forces approach Mosul, millions face humanitarian disaster

A Peshmerga convoy drives towards a frontline on Monday, Oct. 17, 2016. The Iraqi military and the country’s Kurdish forces say they launched operations to the south and east of militant-held Mosul early Monday morning. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

The battle to liberate Mosul from Islamic State has begun, which may yield a crucial military victory, but at the expense of more than a million civilians.

Experts say the fight to retake the northern Iraqi city could last weeks, if not months. The United Nations is warning that the 1.5 million people who live in Mosul and the surrounding region are likely to face the worst humanitarian crisis this year.

That is saying a lot, given what’s happening in Syria and other destabilized parts of the world right now. Many humanitarian organizations say they are under-funded and unprepared to deal with the anticipated needs.

Over the last few months, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have won back territories from the ISIS extremists in northern towns surrounding the city. A successful fight to win back Mosul, the last major city held by ISIS in Iraq, is what the U.S. military claims will be a lasting defeat for the terror group in Iraq.

This is the Iraqi military’s largest offensive since 2011. Backed by the U.S., Kurdish troops are also involved.

In a statement released Sunday, the U.N. expressed concern for the lives of up to 1.5 million people who will be affected by the offensive to retake Mosul, as well as those already displaced in the region after recent offensives.

“I am extremely concerned for the safety of up to 1.5 million people living in Mosul who may be impacted by military operations to retake the city from ISIL,” said Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief.

“Families are at extreme risk of being caught in crossfire or targeted by snipers,” O’Brien said. “Tens of thousands of Iraqi girls, boys, women and men may be under siege or held as human shields. Thousands may be forcibly expelled or trapped between the fighting lines.”

Even compared to the massive humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, U.N. officials say that the fall-out from the Mosul offensive might be the worst humanitarian crisis this year.

“In a worst-case scenario, we’re literally looking at the single largest humanitarian operation in the world in 2016,” said Lise Grande, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. “In Mosul, depending on what happens militarily, a million people could … move in a time span of a couple of weeks.”

The U.N. estimates that around 700,000 people will need urgent assistance in the form of food, shelter, water and medical support. The casualty list is expected to be high, and humanitarian agencies fear that it will grow if the international community is not prepared.

“Without immediate action to ensure people can flee safely, we are likely to see bloodshed of civilians on a massive scale,” said Aram Shakaram, Save the Children’s deputy country coordinator in Iraq in a statement.

Those who stay in the city may be used as human shields, effectively being thrown into the middle of the battle, the U.N. fears, adding concern about the risk of chemical weapons being used to by ISIS to defend the city.

Even if people manage to escape Mosul in the coming weeks and months, humanitarian agencies are worried that the country will be overwhelmed by the number of refugees displaced as a result of the fighting.

Though many are expected to leave Mosul, camps across the region are not able to house the anticipated number of refugees.

“If people do manage to escape, they also face an uncertain situation. At the moment camps are ready for only around 60,000 people – a tiny fraction of the up to one million people who could flee Mosul. The U.N.’s emergency appeal is still only half-funded, but camps could be overwhelmed within days,” Shakaram said.

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Though pro-government forces have made gains at the start of the offensive today, many fear that the fighting will be protracted, if recent fighting in Fallujah is anything to go by.

In June, tens of thousands of Iraqis fled Fallujah during the offensive to recapture the city. The international community failed to anticipate the scale of displacement – a point that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has conceded – leaving thousands of refugees living in squalid, overcrowded camps.

In Hawija, a village near Mosul liberated from ISIS in the last few days, Save the Children estimates that 5,000 people have fled across the border into northeastern Syria and are facing deplorable conditions. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that around 100,000 may attempt to make this perilous journey to war-torn Syria from Mosul too.

The U.N. and humanitarian agencies are preparing themselves for the worst in the hope that they won’t be caught off guard again this time.

“We have learned a lot of lessons from the Fallujah crisis in June,” Brian Geddo, the UNHCR’s representative in Iraq, said in a statement. “The first lesson is that it is too late if you receive funding once the crisis hits the television screen.”

Geddo also said that a “crescent of camps” are being prepared in areas surrounding the city in preparation for the mass exodus of civilians leaving Mosul.

However, according to an Oxfam statement today, while the Iraqi government has identified more than a dozen locations for camps to receive refugees, building work has barely begun. With winter setting in soon, many could freeze to death if assistance is not forthcoming.

“Traumatized families who have fled violence could now face weeks living out in the open or in overcrowded camps. Many will have fled with only the clothes they were wearing and cannot face the harsh Iraqi winter without help,” Andres Gonzales, Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, said in a statement.

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Charlie Ensor

Charlie Ensor is a Nairobi-based freelance journalist, focusing on refugee rights, development and humanitarian crises in East Africa. His work has also featured on the Guardian and WhyDev; he also writes his own blog on development and aid issues. Charlie tweets @charlieensor, and you can contact him at charlieensor1990@googlemail.com