The Human Cost of Retaking Mosul

5 MINS READOct 22, 2016 | 13:45 GMT
The Islamic State has displaced millions of Iraqis over the course of its occupation. The operation to oust the militant group from Mosul could displace a million more.
As the operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State continues, civilians are fleeing from the city by the hundreds, further stressing the already tenuous humanitarian situation in northern Iraq. The Islamic State has displaced millions of Iraqis over the course of its occupation. The operation to oust the militant group from Mosul could displace a million more.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces will very likely prevail in their battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, but their victory will come at a high political and humanitarian cost. In ousting the militant group, the operation in Mosul could raise Iraq's civilian casualty rate — the third-highest in the world behind those of Syria and Yemen — because of the large number of civilians who remain in the city. At the same time, the civilian presence will slow the advance of the coalition fighting to reclaim Mosul, which hopes to minimize collateral damage. Though many of Mosul's roughly 750,000 residents will remain trapped in the city, where the Islamic State will use the civilian presence as a shield to discourage airstrikes, hundreds of thousands of others will seek refuge elsewhere. But in a region already overwhelmed with displaced people from an array of conflicts, refuge will be hard to find.  

The United Nations considers the potential flow of displaced persons from Mosul, the largest city in which a campaign to oust the Islamic State has been undertaken, the year's "most complex humanitarian operation." Aid agencies have warned that the offensive to retake the city will further degrade the humanitarian situation in northern Iraq. Since the campaign began Oct. 17, families have been fleeing by the hundreds, adding to the 4 million Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State since January 2014. An estimated 200,000 people are expected to be displaced from Mosul and its environs by Oct. 28, and by the end of the battle, that number will be closer to 1 million. (Even before the offensive began, 3.3 million Iraqis remained internally displaced, while another 238,500 had fled to neighboring countries in the region.) Of these displaced persons, as well as the 1.2 million-1.5 million civilians who will be otherwise affected by the Mosul offensive, an estimated 700,000 people will need daily assistance.

Anticipating the humanitarian fallout of the Mosul operation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is leading several international aid efforts to coordinate aid response. Nonetheless, the sheer number of people leaving Mosul could overwhelm Iraq's camps, some of which are already experiencing supply problems. To tend to the needs of the displaced population, essential transportation arteries must be kept open and passable so that trucks can bring in clean water for drinking and bathing. Food aid requires help from outside agencies, such as the World Food Program, which is already struggling to maintain its support to the 1.5 million people it currently supplies. Security concerns are also complicating the process of resettling civilians into camps, since Islamic State militants have been caught trying to hide among them. Authorities have intensified screening procedures in light of the Mosul offensive, further slowing the process.

The United Nations considers the potential flow of displaced persons from Mosul, the largest city in which a campaign to oust the Islamic State has been undertaken, the year's "most complex humanitarian operation."

But the greater problem is that almost everywhere in Iraq, camps and sanctuaries are full. Many people leaving Mosul will have to crowd into existing camps and shelters, exacerbating the tenuous security and health conditions in these settlements. So where will the overspill go?

Elsewhere in Iraq

From the beginning of the Islamic State's occupation of Mosul until the start of the current offensive, most civilians fleeing the city headed to Kurdish territory. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has claimed that it already hosts 1.5 million displaced persons, though the number is probably closer to 960,000, according to the United Nations. Regardless, this means that the KRG is housing nearly a third of Iraq's internally displaced population in 21 U.N. camps throughout the region (there is another one currently under construction in Suleimaniyah). Paralyzed by budgetary and political crises, the KRG is alarmed at the prospective onslaught of people from Mosul, stating that it cannot accommodate many more. But the perceived haven that the KRG's territory offers will continue to draw streams of displaced Mosul residents. A camp in Debaga, for instance, received 1,500 displaced civilians in the first two days of the offensive and is bracing for thousands more. In the year since it opened, the number of people housed in the camp has exploded from 3,300 to more than 30,000 — so many that an overflow camp has been set up at a nearby soccer pitch.

Now that the offensive to reclaim Mosul has begun, settlements in the areas immediately surrounding the city will likely absorb the initial waves of displaced persons. For that reason, the United Nations is planning to build the bulk of its new shelters in Nineveh province, where two camps are already under construction to add to the six existing settlements. South and southeast of Mosul in Kirkuk and Salahuddin provinces, two more camps are being built. The highest concentration of camps is farther afield, near Baghdad, but all 18 settlements there are at capacity with people fleeing the Hawija, Fallujah and Ramadi areas. 

Beyond Borders

In the first months of the Islamic State's occupation of Nineveh province, some 65,000 Iraqi refugees showed up at the Turkish border. Since then, Ankara has tightened its border with Iraq and used its concerns over border security to justify its military presence in the country. Though Turkey is not a major destination among Iraqi refugees — the country mostly closed its Habur crossing, trapping many migrants at the border — Turkish border patrols are prepared for increased traffic. Similarly, Jordan, which welcomed refugees in the early stages of the Islamic State's occupation of Syria and Iraq, has since largely closed its borders with both countries. Tens of thousands of refugees remain stuck in desert camps at sealed Jordanian border crossings. This is part of the reason international humanitarian organizations are so focused on funding settlements in Iraq to absorb, settle and care for displaced persons before they cross the border and become refugees.

Even in Syria, international agencies are preparing to receive upward of 90,000 Iraqi refugees from the Mosul offensive. Most of these people will pass through an informal border crossing at the terminus of Highway 47 past Tal Afar and Sinjar to al-Hol camp, just north of the Syria-Iraq border. Organizations active at the settlement say that they expect Iraqis to flood al-Hol soon, although the camp is at capacity. In the week before the Mosul offensive began, at least 5,000 refugees arrived at al-Hol, while 1,000 waited to be admitted across the border. Two smaller camps not far from al-Hol — Roj and Newroz — also hold approximately 2,200 Iraqis. That so many Iraqis are seeking refuge in Syria — where civil war and an international effort against the Islamic State have driven the civilian casualty rate beyond even that of Iraq — speaks to the gravity of the situation they face.

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