As the later stages of routing the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq continue, we must continue to focus attention on the enormous humanitarian needs facing the Iraqi men, women, and children who were displaced by the fighting and those who remained in the city throughout the siege.
When the offensive on Mosul began last October, a wide range of actors – the governments of both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), along with the United Nations, its international non-governmental organization (INGO) partners, donor governments around the world, Iraqi NGOs, and Iraqi citizens – had been preparing for a year for as many as one million people to flee from Mosul. This was largely contingency planning, since military action in Mosul city had not started yet, and no one could predict whether civilians would stay or leave or simply be killed.
Refugees International was in Iraq in September 2016 with various aid groups as they tried to estimate how many people would leave Mosul, how quickly, where they would go, and what their most urgent needs would be. Money was set aside, supplies were stockpiled, and operational agreements were settled, all in an effort to minimize the humanitarian disaster that was sure to develop.
By the end of 2016, “only” a little more than 100,000 Iraqis had been displaced. Today, that number is precariously close to the one million originally projected. But even with all the planning, it has been tremendously difficult for aid groups to keep up with the rate of displacement. Most of the 900,000 people displaced by conflict in and around Mosul will not be able to return next week, next month, or even next year. This conflict may be largely over, but the desperate needs are not.
In Mosul city, buildings are destroyed and entire neighborhoods are littered with various types of unexploded devices. Food and water have been hard to come by, and even where they are available, they are often unaffordable. Electricity and fuel are equally scarce in many areas. Children are malnourished, livelihoods systems are destroyed, and medical needs have gone unattended for years in some cases. And while it’s true that tens of thousands of people have gone back to eastern Mosul, it is important not to make too much of these returns. IDPs may return because they feel safer or are fed up with being displaced, but it doesn’t mean the need for support has ended.
The end of the IS hold on Mosul is only the beginning of a new stage of humanitarian operations that may benefit from better security and access to the vulnerable, but that will nonetheless present challenges. Beyond basic survival and the need to rebuild, people who lived under IS for years will have an exceptional need for psychosocial services, especially as easing social and sectarian tensions in Iraq will be key to rebuilding the country. This, in addition to the need to create conditions for voluntary, safe, and dignified returns for the millions of people who have displaced countrywide.
Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi’s arrival in Mosul marks an officially declared victory over IS in the city. Many will also see it as the long-hoped-for turning point at which Iraq’s stabilization and reconstruction can begin in earnest. Retaking Mosul is indeed a major step in the years-long fight against IS, but the hard work is not over, and new complexities in the humanitarian response are just beginning.