Report

U.N. Braces for a Potentially Massive Exodus from Mosul

With winter coming and funding running low, the U.N. refugee agency is racing to avoid another humanitarian disaster in Iraq.

An Iraqi refugee child who fled Mosul, the last major Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, due to the Iraqi government forces offensive to retake the city, washes dishes at the UN-run al-Hol refugee camp in Syria's Hasakeh province, on October 31, 2016.
At Al-Hol, the camp is being expanded to accommodate the refugees already arriving and the many more who are expected to come as the operation to recapture Mosul advances. Some 6,000 people have been at the camp for around the last two years, and it is being expanded to receive 30,000 people.


 / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN        (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi refugee child who fled Mosul, the last major Iraqi city under the control of the Islamic State (IS) group, due to the Iraqi government forces offensive to retake the city, washes dishes at the UN-run al-Hol refugee camp in Syria's Hasakeh province, on October 31, 2016. At Al-Hol, the camp is being expanded to accommodate the refugees already arriving and the many more who are expected to come as the operation to recapture Mosul advances. Some 6,000 people have been at the camp for around the last two years, and it is being expanded to receive 30,000 people. / AFP / DELIL SOULEIMAN (Photo credit should read DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

As Iraqi security forces wage a grinding house-to-house battle to push the Islamic State out of Mosul, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is rushing to prepare for a potential mass exodus of up to 700,000 mainly Sunni civilians.

But winter is closing in, funds are short, and the head of the UNHCR mission is worried that the international community and the Iraqi government could be overwhelmed by events, possibly setting the stage for renewed sectarian tension.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, the head of UNHCR in Iraq, Bruno Geddo, described the daunting conditions and the rising numbers of displaced civilians that are straining aid organizations to the limit.

From December to February, average temperatures in northern Iraq often fall below 40 degrees Fahrenheit with frequent windstorms and heavy rains that can cause floods. While 80,000 people are already housed in camps in a crescent around eastern Mosul, the sites are quickly filling up and currently only have the capacity to take an additional 30,000. It’s unclear how many more of the 1 million people still estimated to be living inside Mosul may be forced to flee, and the U.N. doesn’t want to be caught on the back foot.

“The sheer scale, this million, hangs like a Damocles sword on our head,” Geddo told FP.

Currently, the U.N. plans to secure 120,000 spots for civilians fleeing Mosul by the end of this year. Official estimates put the upper limit of potential capacity in the area at about 470,000, due to shortages of suitable land — well short of the 700,000 who may flee in a worst-case scenario.

“This is probably the starkest dilemma for us,” Geddo told FP during a visit this week to Washington. “We want always to be ahead of the game, because if we lag behind, we may find ourselves in situation like in Fallujah,” he said, referring to the battle over the summer to dislodge the Islamic State from the city west of Baghdad.

More than 60,000 people poured out of Fallujah in three days in June, overwhelming aid groups. Many of the families who fled the city ended up in overcrowded, squalid camps in the summer heat, and some went without shelter and water.

Geddo said both Iraq and the United Nations have learned from that experience, and, in preparing for the Mosul operation, some international donors gave advanced funding to help the UNHCR prepare.

Still, the U.N. and some nongovernmental organizations are worried that funding isn’t coming in fast enough to keep up. “We are in a race against time to have additional camps prepared before the existing sites fill up,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla, a representative for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq. “The lack of funding is a huge challenge to scale up as fast as we need to and to provide the level of assistance that we would like.”

The U.N.’s refugee agency has only secured 57 percent of the $198 million it estimates is required to respond to the Mosul crisis. The remaining money is needed for essential emergency relief, like building more camps, giving cash to 8,000 vulnerable families, and distributing kerosene and urgent winter assistance kits to 138,000 families.

“We keep on advocating and we hope more funds may be coming,” Geddo said, adding that the United States has been its largest and most consistent donor in Iraq over the years. Since 2014, it has provided more than $1.1 billion for Iraqi humanitarian aid, close to a third of the total.

During his visit to Washington, Geddo met with State Department officials, Republican and Democratic lawmakers from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as U.S.-based NGOs, providing them an update on the situation around Mosul and the need for continued support of humanitarian operations.

Funding from the United States and other donors has helped alleviate the growing humanitarian fallout from the war against the Islamic State. On top of Mosul’s crisis, Iraq is already dealing with 3.2 million internally displaced people since the campaign against the jihadi group began in 2014. The country is also hosting 220,000 Syrian refugees, mostly in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

But it’s unclear if generous U.S. funding will continue apace once Donald Trump enters the White House on Jan. 20.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that while Trump has generally been critical of foreign aid, his administration may calculate that funding U.N. relief efforts is worthwhile for the sake of stability.

“Equally, it is easy to imagine Trump demanding that Arab states and EU countries should pay a greater share of the bill, as they have the most to lose if the refugee management system breaks down, other than the refugees themselves,” he told FP.

If the incoming administration adopts that stance, the U.N. would have to lean harder on already squeezed big European donors, such as Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom, or pressure Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally punched below its economic weight, to pick up the slack. Geddo has not yet met with a member of Trump’s transition team, his office said.

If funding doesn’t keep up and the camps begin to overflow, prospects for Iraq’s stability — and its viability as a state — could be in jeopardy. Having a working and manageable refugee system around Mosul presents a powerful narrative to a population terrorized by the Islamic State and suspicious of the Shiite-led government’s intentions, Geddo said. If they receive protection from Iraqi security forces and food, shelter, water, and respect from the international community, this could provide a counterweight to Islamic State propaganda.

So far, he said he has been impressed with the Iraqi military’s “good-faith effort” to protect civilians and comply with human rights. “They are trying at great cost in blood to uphold principles in international law and protection of civilians as they fight,” he said.

Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, agreed that so far, Iraqi conduct in Mosul seemed to be moving in the right direction. “We have seen a real effort on two things,” he said. “To minimize — not eliminate — but minimize the role of militias in the Mosul battle, and then number two, to conduct the hostilities in a way that shows they are aware of large numbers of civilians and making efforts to protect them.”

“That is supported also by the fact that we are not seeing many civilians in the hospitals amongst the casualties,” Stork added.

The drawn-out nature of the fighting around Mosul also indicates Iraqi forces are using small arms and trying to exercise caution to protect civilians by avoiding artillery barrages inside the city, he said. Yet Stork also worries that the longer the battle continues against the Islamic State, the more likely some Iraqi commanders will agitate for using tanks and heavier firepower to speed up the fighting.  

Geddo said the Iraqi government has also taken precautions to avoid further inflaming sectarian violence in Mosul. Baghdad authorities have barred Iran-backed Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State from entering the city center, where their presence could stir panic and fear among the Sunni population. Shiite militias have been accused of abuses elsewhere against Sunni civilians after towns were liberated from Islamic State control.

And so far, the U.N. has been able to manage screening refugees and providing shelter and assistance within 24 hours around Mosul.

“To the extent that this policy holds, it is hugely significant because it may help dispel doubts, fears, misgivings, prejudices,” Geddo said, referring to both the importance of well-run refugee camps and the Iraq government’s efforts to protect civilians during the fighting.

But, he warned, if the refugee response around Mosul is botched by a surprise outflow that the camps cannot handle, it may rekindle ethnic animosity and sectarian divides. “People may say, ‘Oh, because we are Sunni in the new Iraq, there is no place for us,’” he added.

Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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