Mosul offensive: Aid groups ‘just staying ahead’ of humanitarian needs

An Oxfam aid worker speaks to residents of the village of Imam Gharbi, Iraq. (Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam)

Aid groups are struggling to help the nearly 100,000 people who fled Mosul as the Iraqis sought to recapture the city from the Islamic State (IS) group, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Many people remain in Mosul, and some of the most densely population areas of the city are still under IS control. World Health Organization officials warned that more people are expected to flee, and they will require humanitarian assistance.

The humanitarian crisis is unfolding just as winter arrives.

“Tents don’t keep in heat effectively,” said Ray Offenheiser, head of Oxfam America, in an interview with Humanosphere after he visited the displacement camps in Iraq. “This is like camping out in New Hampshire for these folks. You might want to camp out for two or three nights, but you don’t want to camp out there for months.”

The Islamic State took control of Mosul two years ago, displacing nearly 1 million people from their homes in Iraq’s second-largest city. The new campaign to recapture the city accelerated more displacements and brought international attention to the Iraqis’ plight.

The U.N. refugee agency estimated that 700,000 people need help. There is a need for 40,000 winter tents and 80,000 heaters, but the agency is short $80 million. Overall, the U.N. appeal for Iraq is about two-thirds funded.

“We are just staying ahead of the flow of people out of the city,” Offenheiser said. “We have been kind of fortunate that the number of people leaving the city have not been as high as projected.”

Doctors Without Borders is expanding its work near Mosul. It opened a surgical field hospital 18 miles north of Mosul in October. Most patients are treated for gunshot or shrapnel injuries. A stabilization post closer to the city provides immediate care before people can be safely transferred to the hospital.

But fighting is restricting access to life-saving medical care. Services in Mosul are scant and people fleeing have to pass through government-run checkpoints before they can reach camps and hospitals. Offenheiser raised concerns that the checkpoints have the potential for abuse. Soldiers could discriminate against certain groups, as seen in previous city battles.

“We are concerned about the ability of people to flee safely from parts of cities as they are taken,” he said. “There needs to be a safe route for people to get out of the city. Officials must ensure there is monitoring at screening locations to avoid loss of life seen during Fallujah assault.”

There are five camps outside Mosul. The Iraqi government prefers smaller camps rather than one large camp as seen in other countries. Their hope is that people would return to Mosul soon after it is liberated. Many people are sheltering in place during the fighting, which would account for the lower-than-expected displacement numbers.

The current humanitarian response includes rebuilding existing infrastructure to help people return home when it is safe. Oxfam, for example, is restoring pumping stations destroyed by IS. The local officials who managed the stations are returning to take care of them. These kinds of initiatives can help communities rebuild and reduce the number of displaced families, but security remains paramount.

“People are fearful that once the fighting stops the ISIS threat will no longer be there, but fighting will resume between traditional forces,” Offenheiser said.

Mosul is expected to fall at some point in early 2017. The Iraqi army and its international backers will then turn its focus onto driving IS completely out of the country and eventually defeating the organization. People in liberated areas of the city are still not safe, and they are cut off from basic services like safe drinking water. Aid groups say there is a need to both provide immediate assistance and invest in long-term reconstruction.

“Iraqis [are]clamoring for a plan for their safe return home, an end to the cycle of violence and a political process that gives them the future they deserve,” Wolfgang Gressmann, Norwegian Refugee Council’s Iraq country director, said in a statement today.

“It is an impressive testament to their resilience that after two decades of conflict and suffering they still have hope for a future in their country. We have yet to see a concerted plan by the international community on how it will support the Iraqi government to make sure this happens.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.