As Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga security forces push to retake Mosul from the Islamic State, international aid agencies are preparing for what the United Nations estimates could be an exodus of as many as one million people.
It would not be the first large-scale displacement from an Iraqi city during the recent conflict with ISIS: by U.N. estimates, more than 85,000 people fled Fallujah during a military offensive that reclaimed the city from ISIS in late May and June.
Aid agencies struggled to provide food, water and shelter to those displaced.
Aid agencies scrambled to assemble shelters in various locations around Fallujah and across the country.
Fallujah’s population at the time of the military offensive was approximately 300,000 people. The U.N. estimates the population of Mosul is currently approximately 1.5 million.
With the number of evacuees from Fallujah having overwhelmed aid agencies, officials are anxious at the prospect of mass displacement from Mosul.
“Fallujah is a trial run that didn’t go very well,” Joel Charny, Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s U.S. office, told the PBS NewsHour.
Charny, who has worked in humanitarian aid for more than 30 years, added that the agencies are preparing for a worst case scenario, but the situation in Mosul is still uncertain.
“We don’t know how Mosul is going to unfold,” he said.
Agencies are already stretched thin at a time where global humanitarian need is at an unprecedented level, Christopher Boian, a spokesperson for the U.N. refugee agency, told the NewsHour. And though preparation for the Mosul offensive has been underway for months, the agency is underfunded, only hitting 39 percent of its target of about $196 million appeal for Mosul emergency funds, Boian added.
“Despite generous contributions from donor countries, funding has been insufficient to prepare fully for the worst-case scenario,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in a statement Sunday.
O’Brien also said that U.N.Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has shelter space available throughout the region, including at Debaga camp and elsewhere in the Erbil Governorate, for 60,000 people. It is constructing shelters at other locations to house more than 250,000 people, he said.
If the U.N. refugee agency hits its funding goal, it would be able to accommodate 570,000 people in shelters.
The U.N. also said it has full-day food rations for 220,000 families.
While aid workers ready infrastructure for a mass exodus from Mosul, the most frightening scenario for aid suppliers would occur if civilians are not able to leave the city.
Because militants in Mosul have barred entry for aid convoys, the amount of emergency supplies in the city are a mystery.
“Nobody knows exactly because we haven’t been able to get in,” UNICEF spokesman Christopher Tidey said.
“If people can’t leave, then the risk for them, especially children, is going to skyrocket,” he said.
If estimates from the U.N. hold true, the total number of internally displaced people in Iraq could grow to more than 4 million people.
The number of people internally displaced by conflict in Iraq since 2014 has reached 3.2 million, according to U.N. estimates. That is almost one-tenth of the population, making Iraq the country with the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.