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ISIS in Iraq

Mosul in crisis: 750,000 Iraqis trapped, 500,000 more in need


Humanitarian aid agencies, in coordination with the government, have been preparing to respond to the needs of over 1 million Iraqis who are impacted by the continuing battle to retake Mosul. Some 580,000 people continue to live in the east of the city; another 750,000 people remain trapped in the west and are in desperate need of food, water, shelter and medical care. Here’s what you need to know about the crisis:

Why is Mosul in crisis?

In 2014, the militant group ISIS overran great swathes of Iraq and gained control of key cities including Mosul, the country’s second largest with a population of 2 million. Hundreds were killed and 500,000 fled their homes.

Why is Mosul important?

Iraq already struggles to cope with one of the largest humanitarian crises in the Middle East. Since January 2014, 3.4 million people, including 1.5 million children, have been forced from their homes, some families uprooted multiple times. Around 850,000 have sought safety in the Kurdish region of Iraq, joining 250,000 Syrian refugees there.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis remain in desperate need of shelter, food, water and safety as they continue to flee the fighting. Many will be unable to return home for a long time.

Why is life under ISIS so difficult?

Mosul’s residents have been struggling to meet basic needs. An economic downturn and restrictions imposed by ISIS on businesses and workers have left many people without jobs or sufficient means to secure an income. By now, many have run out of savings and struggle to afford any food and other necessities still available in markets.

Up to 75 percent of the city’s infrastructure is thought to have been destroyed or left in disarray by ISIS. Across the city, vital pumping stations and water networks have been damaged. Some are now under repair in the newly retaken areas of the east but not in the west, where there is no humanitarian access.

In addition, ISIS has imposed a strict code of dress and behavior subject to severe punishments. Many of Mosul’s Shia mosques, Yazidi shrines, Christian churches and heritage sites have been looted or destroyed, including the remains of the ancient city of Nineveh. 

These difficulties mean that people fleeing Mosul require help far beyond food, water and shelter. Many need medical attention and trauma counseling, and children are often two years behind in education.

What’s the current situation in Mosul?

The difficult battle to retake the west of the city from ISIS is underway, as of Feb. 19, which is expected to last for months. The first three months of fighting claimed more than 1,600 civilian casualties. Dozens of wounded arrive daily at hospitals on the outskirts.

More than 150,000 residents remain displaced around Mosul. This number is expected to more than double as the fighting unfolds. Some 580,000 remain in the eastern half of Mosul.

In eastern neighborhoods civilians who remained, or have returned, continue to face dangers from explosive devices and damaged infrastructure, and suffer from shortages of food, water and power. Other essential goods and services are out of reach for many as two years without income has left people without cash or savings.

The 750,000 people thought to be trapped in western Mosul also face critical shortages and skyrocketing prices—80 percent of goods are out of reach for people.

Residents from Mosul are likely to remain displaced, or continue to face challenges in the city, for months to come as military operations continue. The IRC is particularly concerned about the wellbeing some of the most vulnerable civilians, including elderly people, pregnant women, small children, and women and girls who have lost male relatives.

Where are Iraqis fleeing?

The military operation to drive ISIS from Mosul began without safe escape routes for civilians. Nevertheless, up to 4,000 residents left the city each day as troops recaptured surrounding villages and towns and began their push into the neighborhoods east of the city. Many people have found shelter in the Khazir, Hasansham and Qaymawa (formerly Zelikan) displacement camps, where the IRC is providing emergency supplies and access to health care.

Iraqi displaced women and children, who fled the violence in the northern city of Mosul, walk at the Dibaga camp on July 16, 2016 in Makhmur, about 280 kilometres (175 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.
Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

South of Mosul, 85,000 people have fled the district of Hawija, although another 70,000 remain trapped there under ISIS control, and are also cut-off from vital supplies. Many of those able to leave went to Kirkuk, where the IRC is providing them with emergency cash assistance.

Some Iraqis were forced by desperation to cross the border into Syria, itself embroiled in deadly conflict. According to the United Nations, over 13,000 Iraqis have entered Syria since military operations in Mosul began.

The IRC is providing health screenings and basic supplies to over 2,000 Iraqis who have arrived in Al Hol refugee camp in Syria's relatively stable northeastern Hassakah governorate. Many of these new arrivals have paid smugglers up to ‎$900 a person to lead them on perilous journeys across ISIS-controlled territory, walking up to two weeks without a day’s pause. One Iraqi refugee told the IRC that he walked over 12 miles in a single night to avoid ISIS patrols. He also said he left his elderly father behind because he was not fit enough to complete the journey.

What are the humanitarian concerns in Mosul?

•    It is thought that 750,000 people remain trapped in the western part of the city with little to no aid or supplies.

•    The 580,000 remaining in the east still face difficult and even life-threatening conditions, including the risk of unexploded weapons and ongoing security threats. Long-term challenges also remain to rebuilding the social fabric, and restoring infrastructure, livelihoods and trust — all critical to allow residents to return safely and rebuild their lives.

•    Those managing to flee Mosul face a perilous journey across frontlines, then must pass through security screening (sometimes multiple times) before reaching relative safety. Men and boys older than 14 are checked for any ISIS affiliation.

•    Conditions in camps and other areas remain difficult; many people face long-term displacement.

What happens when Mosul is retaken?

The battle to retake western Mosul is expected to last several more months. Even when the entire city is retaken from ISIS, mines and other explosive devices will prevent people from returning home safely. 

Indeed, Iraqis still suffer in areas ISIS was forced out over a year ago. Homes have been damaged and businesses destroyed. It is critical that civilians also have the chance to return when they choose to do so and in a safe and dignified manner, after having suffered under ISIS for over two years. Communities will take time to heal and for trust and the social fabric to be rebuilt. In order to achieve long-term stability in Iraq, the humanitarian community must continue to support Iraqis to rebuild their lives beyond the defeat of ISIS.

How is the IRC helping people displaced by the battle?

In Iraq:

•    We are responding in the north, south and east of Mosul to find and help the most vulnerable groups of displaced people.

•    We are distributing emergency cash (equaling $400 per family) to people fleeing ISIS-controlled Hawija; another 75,000 people who cannot access shops or markets have received emergency kits that include winter gear, sanitary supplies and baby supplies.

•    We are helping displaced Iraqis recover lost documentation necessary to access government services and to move freely without fear of arrest.

•    We are identifying separated families and unaccompanied children, and referring people who have been traumatized by violence for counseling.

•    We are establishing safe spaces for children—secure, caring places where kids can learn and begin to overcome trauma.

•    IRC mobile teams are ensuring women and girls are protected and supported; we are also working to establish women’s committees and to make sure women and girls in camps have the facilities they need to stay safe. 

In Syria:

•    IRC health teams have screened Iraqi refugees arriving at Al Hol refugee camp for contagious diseases; documented chronic diseases needing treatment; and identified pregnant women needing extra support.

•    We also have screened hundreds children under the age 5 for malnutrition, referring more than a dozen cases for urgent care.

•    We have provided women with “dignity kits” that include underwear, sanitary pads and hygiene items.

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