BAGHDAD // The battle to retake Mosul from ISIL could unleash a massive humanitarian crisis, potentially pushing up to a million people to flee their homes as winter sets in.
Mosul, the country’s second city, was seized by ISIL in 2014, and is now the last major population centre in Iraq still held by the extremists.
It is believed that more than a million people still live there. The only other operation to retake a city that had a significant number of inhabitants was in Fallujah earlier this year, but it led to widespread displacement and suffering for those who fled.
Based on what the military said, significant population movements will likely take place “within five to six days”, Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Iraq.
“We are rushing to help the Iraqis ensure that the bare minimum requirements for a worst-case humanitarian scenario are in place. We’re worried that there is still so much to do and that these are not yet there,” she said.
She said that in a worst-case scenario, this could be the single largest humanitarian operation in the world in 2016.
The UN said after Baghdad announced the launch of the operation on Monday that an estimated 1.5 million people still live in the Mosul area and that the fighting could displace up to one million.
If even a sixth of that number of people flee at the same time, it would overwhelm any capacity to help them.
“There’s an informal rule of thumb that any population movement over 150,000 people at once, no institution in the world can deal with it,” Ms Grande said.
Those who flee Mosul will likely bring little or nothing with them, meaning basic necessities such as food, water, shelter and clothing will have to be provided.
“Many of them are expected to leave Mosul with only the clothes on their backs,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Despite the massive scale of the humanitarian operation needed to assist people fleeing Mosul, funding is a major problem. Of US$367 million (Dh1.35bn) requested, significantly less than half has been received so far.
The International Organisation for Migration has announced that it will build emergency sites to provide shelter and basic services for 200,000 people, but said last week that it still needed additional funding.
According to the UN’s Ms Grande, 200,000 people being displaced “is a working scenario” for what might happen in the first two weeks. The number could still rise significantly as the operation goes on.
Iraqi forces will have to fight their way through ISIL-held territory to reach the city, then surround it and launch an assault to retake it.
Depending on how long the operation takes, major displacement from the city could come as winter sets in, leaving people with limited shelter in the freezing desert nights.
Mosul civilians will be in grave danger during the fighting, caught in the middle of shelling, air strikes and firefights, and may also be held as human shields by ISIL.
“In the densely populated districts of the city ... there could be tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of civilians at extreme risk, depending upon what Daesh does,” said Ms Grande.
“If Daesh rings districts with [bombs], if they put snipers at key points, we could see a situation where civilians become human shields,” she said.
Of three Iraqi cities that have been recaptured from ISIL, only Fallujah had a substantial civilian population, and the way that operation unfolded does not bode well for Mosul.
Tens of thousands of people fled the city and surrounding areas in an exodus that appeared to catch the aid community flat-footed, leaving displaced Iraqis in squalid, overcrowded camps.
After people escape Mosul, “hopefully, the humanitarian society will then be able to provide these people with the help they need, so that they don’t step from one hell into another hell”, Ms Abdulla from the Norwegian Refugee Council said.
* Agence France-Presse