Cash-strapped aid agencies are scrambling to respond to an escalating humanitarian crisis after Islamist militants seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, forcing an estimated half a million people to flee towards the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the space of days.
This surge by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) - a jihadist grouping also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) because it is active across the border in Syria - comes after a bloody six months in Iraq where car bombs, suicide attacks and shootings have claimed more than 5,000 lives, prompting some to fear civil war might return.
Clashes between ISIL/ISIS, government security forces and other armed groups in Iraq’s restive Anbar province have displaced more than 440,000 people.
Humanitarian actors, who are already supporting some 220,000 Syrian refugees in Kurdistan, have been warning for months that the violence could spread from Anbar, and that their funding was running dangerously low.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said it had received varying accounts about how many people have been displaced from Mosul and other violence-hit areas in the last week, but the International Organization for Migration estimated as many as 500,000 had been displaced in just a few days.
Short of funds
In an 11 June report UNAMI noted: “Most of the UN agencies do not have funds to continue to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance,” and called on donors to “provide the necessary funding”.
“Our financial resources have already been spread very thin because of the whole situation in Anbar, and our ongoing support to Syrian Refugees,” Michael Bates, Iraq country director for the Danish Refugee Council, told IRIN.
“For some time we have been pushing donors to get involved because already what we could cover for Anbar was minute in comparison to the needs, but now we are [possibly] looking at a million displaced people. I don’t see where this ends,” he added.
Aram Shakaram, Acting Country Director of Save the Children in Iraq, in a statement said the mass exodus from Mosul was “one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory”, and also called for more funding by the international community.
The representative in Iraq for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Marzio Babille, noted that his agency’s existing appeal for Iraq was only 16 percent funded and said the Mosul crisis would “greatly increase the need for humanitarian assistance and funding”. He described the situation as “an emergency on top of an emergency in Iraq, coming on the heels of other internal displacements of children and families in Anbar, as well as Syrian refugees in the north”.
Aid teams in the area report that several thousand people from Mosul have already entered the Kurdish provinces of Erbil and Dohuk, but most are in long queues on the other side of border, with limited access to food, water and shelteR.
Most of the people in Mosul, 400km north of Baghdad, are Sunni Arabs in a city that lies in the province of Nineveh, which is disputed territory partly controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
The advance of the ISIL/ISIS militia into the Iraqi side of Mosul is of major concern to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which to date has managed to avoid the bloodshed and violence that has gripped the rest of Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 by applying strict surveillance and security measures.
The KRG appears unwilling to allow large numbers of Arab Iraqis from Mosul into their territory. Although land is being prepared for a tented camp that will shelter 2,000 families in the Shekhan district, 5km south of Baadre in Dohuk, there are calls to accommodate as many people as possible in the Kurdish-controlled part of Nineveh.
UN agencies have set up temporary transit facilities with latrines close to border areas to provide medical support and drinking water to support the tens of thousands waiting at the border checkpoints, many of whom arrived on foot without any food or other supplies. UNICEF has sent teams to carry out health assessments and deliver polio and other vaccinations.
UNHCR said more than 2,500 families have been displaced and are camping in schools and mosques in Mosul, where ISIL/ISIS militants have claimed control of the airport, government buildings and military bases. They have also raided banks and set free thousands of prisoners.
Mandie Alexander, a monitoring and evaluation officer from IOM, said the western side of Mosul was short of drinking water after the main supply station was bombed, and food and fuel supplies were also running low there.
IOM’s Rapid Assessment and Rapid response Teams received reports of a high number of civilian casualties, and that the city’s four main hospitals were inaccessible due to fighting, so mosques had been turned into temporary clinics.
The insecurity in Mosul means access is extremely limited, and agencies say it is hard to get a clear picture of the exact situation and how many people have been displaced.
The advance of ISIL/ISIS into Mosul and beyond has stoked fears that the capital, Baghdad, may now be a target. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Malaiki, has called on parliament to declare a state of emergency.
Rights Groups have condemned the advance of militia in Mosul. "ISIS armed groups and the Iraqi security forces must avoid repeating the violence against civilians that took place in Fallujah, and they should not block the way of those civilians seeking to flee the area,” said Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Programme Director, Said Boumedouha.
This surge in violence and displacement has catapulted Iraq back onto the international political and media agenda, after months of struggling to get any attention due to the civil war in Syria.
In a 10 June statement the US State Department said: “It should be clear that ISIL is not only a threat to the stability of Iraq, but a threat to the entire region. This growing threat exemplifies the need for Iraqis from all communities to work together to confront this common enemy and isolate these militant groups from the broader population.”
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to unite behind Iraq as the country confronts this "serious security challenge”. The UN Security Council is to discuss the situation on Thursday (12 June).