Humanitarians in northern Iraq are scrambling to prepare for what they expect could be the worst crisis in the country in years, as up to 1 million civilians flee fighting around the second city of Mosul.
But uncertainties about the situation abound, complicating preparations and limiting aid groups’ abilities to plan for all but the most immediate basic needs of those impacted by the fighting. U.N. agencies and relief organizations are ready with food and survival kits for hundreds of thousands of people, but more robust responses including semipermanent shelter, health care, education, psychosocial support, and other needs may be months off. Already, operations are massively underfunded.
Aid organizations have been planning and prepositioning supplies since February in preparation for a military operation, begun this week, to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group. The U.N. expects as many as 200,000 people will be displaced in just the first three weeks of the operation.
Yet aside from the magnitude of the crisis, little else is clear — leaving humanitarians to guess where and when they should be ready.
Until this week, cellular phone service had been shut off within Mosul, leaving few clues about the conditions under which the city’s 1.5 million residents have spent the last two years under the rule of the Islamic State group. Nor have military forces involved in the campaign indicated where or when humanitarian corridors will open to allow civilians to flee. Perhaps most worrying, neither diplomats nor soldiers nor aid workers can predict how the Islamic State group will treat civilians under its control as the campaign to take back the city unfolds.
Unclear humanitarian corridors
Iraqi security forces have told the U.N. that they plan to usher fleeing civilians across the front lines into a series of mustering points, where they will undergo a security check and receive basic goods such as clean water from the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.
U.N. agencies’ first contacts with internally displaced persons will be at a second set of screening sites, where civilians will be taken for additional security checks, according to Farah Dakhlallah, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF’s Middle East and North Africa spokesperson.
“They will screen male family members while their families wait,” she said.
During this time, UNICEF will immunize children and provide families with emergency kits meant to support a family with a week’s worth of basic goods.
From there, cleared civilians will move to camps. The Iraqi government has identified 27 emergency sites and camps, including three priority campsites to the south and southwest of Mosul that are now under construction but only partially ready to accept IDPs.
Despite these outlined plans, nongovernmental organizations working on the ground say they don’t fully understand where or when humanitarian corridors will open, and they are struggling to position themselves accordingly.
“There’s a lot of negotiations and discussions happening” about the corridors, said Alzawqari. “We have heard a couple of things and they keep changing because the military operation is ongoing. [The forces] are moving and things change as they move.”
If and when they are allowed to leave, Mosul residents are likely to flee destitute and in brief windows of opportunity. Alzawqari said previous IDPs fleeing Islamic State group-held territories “leave with nothing other than the clothes they are wearing. They start from zero.”
U.N. agencies, the ICRC, and dozens of international and local NGOs are now positioning stockpiles of food, hygiene kits, cookstoves, blankets and other necessities. ICRC, for example, says it has enough emergency supplies for 300,000 civilians at the moment and expects trucks carrying stocks for 200,000 to arrive within weeks.
If all goes according to plan, aid groups working in Iraq say they do expect to be able to meet basic needs. Organizations involved in the humanitarian operation told Devex that there has been strong interagency coordination and most NGOs have plans for how to assist.
However, the number of unknown contingencies indicates just how much could go wrong.
One possible catastrophe: If civilians are trapped for a long period of time in Mosul and the battle turns into a siege. Although anti-Islamic State group forces have promised humanitarian corridors flowing out of the city, Islamic State group itself is unlikely to allow aid in and may seek to boost civilian casualties to raise the costs of the operation to the Iraqi government.
“One of the concerns we have is what will happen with the humanitarian situation inside Mosul,” said Andres Gonzales, Iraq country director for Oxfam. “We are working in scenarios and if we get to that stage of a long-term siege, we will try to respond in the best way. But at the moment, it’s only scenarios and speculation.”
Fleeing civilians could also be subject to an array of dangers, from mortar and gunfire, to assault, to the possible use of chemical or other agents the Islamic State group has managed to secure. ICRC has spent much of the last several months training an array of first responders in basic first aid and trauma to try to mitigate the fallout from any such situation.
Children may be separated from their families while fleeing — a contingency UNICEF is planning for with emergency reunification services.
The speed of displacement alone could also be an enormous challenge, said Dakhlallah.
“A lot could go wrong. The biggest challenge is being able to deliver services to the right standards and at pace,” she told Devex. “If an enormous amount of people flow out of Mosul very quickly, it’s going to be a challenge to provide services instantly.”
Medium- and long-term needs
For now, aid groups are almost exclusively focusing on the emergency response. Other pressing needs may need to wait months or longer.
“Now in our plans is the first line response,” said Gonzales. Psychosocial support and education “are in the pipeline, but after one month or two months. First, we need to make sure everyone has accommodation, water, and so forth.”
Among the major obstacles is the construction of camps, which has only just started. Dakhlallah said that UNICEF and others plan to incrementally scale up their services as IDP numbers rise and camp infrastructure is completed. In the meantime, she said, her agency will offer services such as informal learning centers to keep children in school.
More permanent second-line services could be even further off if funding doesn’t come through, relief workers warn. The U.N. over the summer issued a flash appeal for $367 million to cover the Mosul relief efforts, of which $155 million has been pledged. Even if the remaining needs are promised tomorrow, it would likely take months for donor funds to materialize on the ground.
Funding shortages are also only likely to get worse. Needs are expanding rapidly and donor funds are already stretched. By the end of 2016, the U.N. expects between 12 and 13 million Iraqis could need humanitarian aid.
Despite growing immediate needs, building secondary services may be crucial to the long-term success of the Mosul operation — and to eventually allowing its inhabitants to return and rebuild their lives. IDPs are likely to carry with them a level of trauma that would challenge any health system.
“Looking at the people who fled Fallujah, for example, you met a lot of families who had to go through eating grass and eating leaves to survive,” said Alzawqari.
Civilians are likely to be away from their homes for months or longer. Previous military campaigns liberating Fallujah and Ramadi from the Islamic State group have decimated city infrastructure and left behind contaminated water supplies. Government services from health care to education to security are nearly nonexistent, and many IDPs — Iraq now has 3.3 million of them — prefer to stay in camps or other urban areas.
“It’s very hard to go back,” said Alzawqari, “even after the fighting is over.”
Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.
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