Skip to main content

You are here

Mosul: Winning must include protecting civilians

08 Nov 2016

As the siege of Mosul unfolds, civilians brace themselves for potential humanitarian disaster

  • 1 million people expected to be displaced by the siege in Mosul: 150,000 have been displaced so far
  • 365,640 individual shelters are in planning or under construction
  • MSF provided 20,000 consultations in the last year but the needs of the 3.3 million displaced in the country far outstrip this

After more than two years of Islamic State occupation, the Iraqi military offensive to re-take the northern city of Mosul is officially underway, and aid agencies are fearing the battle could unleash a massive humanitarian crisis, as civilians come in the firing line both in the city itself or as they attempt to flee.

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city and is home to almost approximately 1.5 million residents, who are now faced with an impossible dilemma: to stay, and risk food shortages, violence and having their families caught up in combat and airstrikes; or to leave, and risk sniper attacks and roadside bombs as they flee, followed by a bleak existence in camps for displaced people. As the fighting intensifies in the coming weeks, and with a harsh Iraqi Winter looming, that dilemma will only grow more acute.

The UNHCR has warned that in a worst-case scenario, this could be the single largest humanitarian operation in the world in 2016, potentially forcing one million civilians to flee the city, with little more than the clothes on their backs. Families and aid workers are also worried that if Islamic State rings Mosul districts with bombs or if they put snipers at key points, there is every chance that civilians attempting to flee will be used as human shields, as was the case earlier this year in the fight for Falluja. There is also the very considerable risk of Islamic State using chemical weapons.

The Australian Red Cross has urged all sides of the fight to respect the rules of law which protect civilians. “Right now, respect for humanitarian law is all the people of Mosul can hope for, not simply from those holding the city but from those attacking it,” said Pheobe Wynn-Pope, the Director of International Humanitarian Law for the Australian Red Cross. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/MSF), who has suffered dozens of attacks on hospital facilities in Syria and Yemen in the past year has also been urging greater care and attention to the protection of patients, doctors and care givers – along with all civilians, caught in conflicts.

The assault on Mosul comes as the number of people displaced by war in Iraq has reached 3.3 million, or nearly one-tenth of the population. Those currently fleeing Mosul and its surrounding areas join about half a million people who fled the city in June 2014.

Humanitarian agencies are currently preparing to provide the displaced with food, clean drinking water, toilets, blankets, and other vital humanitarian aid. However, with current funding levels, UNHCR says it is only able to provide accommodation for 20,000 families – or 120,000 people. Other groups working alongside the agency estimate they can help a further 50,000, but many are worried that there simply may not be enough resources to meet the humanitarian needs of the impending flood of fleeing civilians.

In Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on 17 October that an extra $10 million would be made available to help civilians fleeing the military operation in the coming weeks. This contribution brings Australia’s total humanitarian commitment towards Iraq up to $70 million since June 2014.

MSF is closely monitoring the situation in and around Ninewa governorate and is ready to scale up its activities in Ninewa in order to respond to the potential mass influx of populations fleeing military operations. At this stage, MSF is preparing to reinforce its teams with medical personnel as well as sending medical supplies. In particular, two mobile medical teams have been put in place in West Erbil in response to the influx of displaced people. In Salaheddin governorate, where MSF runs a mobile clinic and a stabilisation unit in Hajjaj not too far from the frontline, teams stand ready to scale up activities in anticipation of large population movements from northern Salaheddin and Ninewa. MSF teams are also ready to scale up activities in Kirkuk governorate.

MSF leads medical activities across northern, central and southern Iraq. MSF activities rely on over 400 Iraqi and international staff working in 11 governorates.

Some have described the military operations to liberate northern Iraq from Isis as 'humanitarian'. MSF rejects the use of this term in connection with offensive bombing and other military tactics. Nevertheless, the test of this claim will be demonstrated in how seriously the warring parties take the need to protect civilians, both during the battle and in its aftermath.