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The Mosul offensive raises fears of a major humanitarian crisis


There are fears that the offensive on the Iraqi city of Mosul could result in a humanitarian crisis on an unprecedented scale. More than one million people may be forced to flee to escape the fighting, in a country where at least 3.3 million people have already been uprooted. Handicap International is concerned that the people fleeing Mosul will not all be able to access humanitarian aid. Thomas Hugonnier, head of emergency response operations in Iraq, explains the situation.

The Khazir camps which accommodate displaced populations who have escaped the fighting in Iraq.

The Khazir camps which accommodate displaced populations who have escaped the fighting in Iraq. | © Camille Borie / Handicap International

Thomas, what is the situation in Iraq, and specifically in Mosul?

Thomas Hugonnier: The fighting between armed groups and government forces during recent years has led to the displacement of more than 3.3 million people. In total, there are already an estimated 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Iraq. With the start of the offensive on Mosul, international organisations are preparing to face an unprecedented challenge, in a country where the humanitarian situation is critical due to the scale of the crisis and the diversity of needs.

Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city, with a population of 1.8 million before the conflict began. When the Islamic State group seized power in June 2014, almost half a million people fled the city and the surrounding area, mainly seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi government has since tried to reconquer Mosul. Since an offensive in March 2016, government forces have been gradually advancing, and have just launched a large-scale operation to take back control of the city.


What are the humanitarian needs likely to be following the Mosul offensive?

According to the United Nations, the Mosul offensive could cause the greatest humanitarian crisis of 2016 and the largest population displacement seen since the genocide in Rwanda. Many families have already started to flee the city, in order to escape before the offensive. The movement is expected to accelerate as the fighting intensifies. Up to 1.5 million civilians are likely to be directly affected by this military operation. One million may well seek refuge far from home, in areas which are further away from the fighting.

Entire families will be displaced as they flee the fighting and certain parts of Mosul in a state of utter confusion, with no access to food, medicine or shelter.  Moreover, these tens of thousands of families will have to cross very dangerous areas of the country, contaminated by explosive remnants of war.


How is the international community dealing with this situation?

The resources committed so far as clearly insufficient. To date, less than half of the budget required for the construction of camps to accommodate displaced families has been made available. States and international donors have approached the planning of mass coordinated humanitarian aid with apathy, despite the urgent need to prepare a large-scale humanitarian response in order to limit the current and future consequences of population displacement.


How does Handicap International plan to assist displaced families?

Our intervention will be structured around four areas: psychosocial support, physical rehabilitation, inclusion and action against mines. In this type of crisis, psychosocial support is crucial: we will have to support people who have probably lived with violence for more than two years and who have had to flee their homes in appalling conditions, leaving everything behind (relatives, homes, jobs etc.). This is a traumatic experience, particularly for children and elderly people.

People with injuries and disabilities are even more vulnerable in the context of mass displacement. They find it even harder to obtain access to health services. Therefore, we plan to deploy mobile teams which will provide physiotherapy sessions and distribute crutches and wheelchairs etc. One of our aims is to prepare other NGOs to ensure their operations take into account the needs of the most vulnerable. Currently, 20% of the population of Mosul is made up of single mothers, people with disabilities and vulnerable people. Physical accessibility for the most vulnerable people is a major challenge both when moving out of "assembly areas" or around the camps (reception centres, health service camps, welfare centres, schools, etc.) and it is vital that this issue is addressed.

Finally, in order to improve the protection of displaced populations against explosive devices left behind after the fighting, our teams plan to carry out surveys in the areas people are passing through, as well as in the displacement zones in the plain of Nineveh to ensure that they are free of explosive remnants of war. At the same time, risk education sessions on explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices could be provided to limit the risk of accidents. 


What are the main humanitarian aid challenges in this type of setting? 

When they flee the city of Mosul, the population will be subject to controls by various parties to the conflict, notably to avoid infiltration by the Islamic State group. This means that they are likely to spend several days in holding areas before being allowed into the humanitarian camps where they can receive assistance. Families also run the risk of being separated, etc. There are currently no plans in place for supplying humanitarian assistance to these areas, despite the fact that the fleeing population will need food and water etc. This is a real cause for concern.

Furthermore, in view of the risks of inter-community tensions, it is likely that displaced people will experience discrimination when trying to access humanitarian aid due to their ethnic or religious background. We must take action to compensate for these inequalities.


Why is it necessary for Handicap International to intervene in Iraq?

NWe have been operating in Iraq for 25 years, and since 2014 we have been supporting displaced Iraqis, working as close as possible to conflict zones, sometimes only one of the very few NGOs present in the country. Our guiding principle is to implement complementary projects, conducting mine clearing operations in stabilised areas, leading risk awareness-raising sessions, and providing care for the injured.  Not to mention the "invisible injuries" tackled by our psychosocial support program. In such difficult conditions, this comprehensive response makes all the difference. We are also particularly attentive to the needs of the most vulnerable people, those who are unable to travel by themselves, those who are ill or have disabilities. In an acute crisis situation, having access to the right humanitarian aid is vital for these extremely vulnerable people.


Handicap International and the Iraq crisis

More than 125,000 people have benefited from Handicap International’s projects since the launch of their emergency operations in Iraq in 2014. The organisation’s work is re-assessed on a regular basis, taking into account the volatile situation across the whole of Iraq. Handicap International is currently implementing operations to protect the population (raising awareness of the risk of mines and conventional weapons, non-technical studies and mine clearance in potential danger zones, physical and functional rehabilitation, psychosocial support, support for health centres (by donating equipment, training staff and equipping the premises), adapted transport and support for accessing services, training, advocacy for the inclusion of people with disabilities, and technical support for external partners to reinforce the inclusion of vulnerable people within their services.

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