Opinion: Don’t leave Iraq’s displaced out of the equation

Commentary provided by Robert Mardini, Regional Director for the Near and Middle East at the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland and Katharina Ritz, ICRC’s Head of Delegation in Baghdad, Iraq.

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Humanitarian concerns in Iraq – particularly those of an estimated 3.3 million people who are internally displaced – are being overshadowed by military, security and stabilization objectives.

As Iraqi and coalition forces prepare their offensive to take back Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul from the Islamic State group, we at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are growing increasingly worried about the humanitarian crisis affecting those who have fled earlier battles, and the looming crisis that awaits the residents of Mosul and the surrounding area.

On the ground, we are seeing an intensification in the resolve of all sides and our message to those engaged in the conflict is to spare civilians and allow aid to reach people in need.

The weather has been unforgiving in recent weeks. On August 3, the southeastern Iraqi city of Samawah reported a “real-feel” temperature of 159 degrees Fahrenheit. With not a drop of rain in the forecast, heat and hunger pangs have become the harsh reality for tens of thousands of IDPs, who have traded insecurity for uncertainty in fleeing their homes.

One thinks of the image of a young boy – perhaps seven or eight – taking shelter from the blazing sun in a town called Amiriyat al-Fallujah. He was using a cardboard box bearing the emblem of the ICRC to take shade from the merciless sun.

It is at once heart-rending and emblematic of the conditions that those displaced in Iraq are facing. Dignity and freedom of movement are scarce in many IDP camps. Food, water, sanitation, and electricity are in even shorter supply. 

One tenth of Iraq’s population is currently on the run inside their own country. If we compare that to the US, it would be the same as if the entire populations of Texas and South Carolina were forced to go live in camps, informal settlements, or abandoned buildings.

So far this year, the ICRC has provided food, drinking water and medical assistance to over a million Iraqis, but it’s not nearly enough. We are being kept at the fringes of the frontlines, yet there is so much more we could do and so much suffering that could be alleviated if only we had access to places like Mosul.

At this stage, it’s hard to imagine how the battle for Mosul will play out, but the fall of Ramadi and Fallujah have taught us that the humanitarian needs are going to be massive. This poses a daunting challenge for humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC.

In late July, foreign and defense ministers from 60 nations met in Washington for an unprecedented summit to discuss counter terror measures. Representatives of more than two dozen donor countries also met in DC for a separate pledging conference, co-hosted by the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and Kuwait that raised over $2 billion to help restore stability in Iraq.

We attended that donor meeting and were pleased to hear talk of the need for a humanitarian plan that is ready and resourced, but we are concerned that military and stabilization imperatives are taking precedent over humanitarian concerns and the plight of ordinary Iraqis, who are worn down by years of war and largely left to their own devices to survive.

Women, children, the elderly, and the sick and wounded are particularly vulnerable, especially pregnant women, infants and unaccompanied minors. It’s troublesome to see that as food and financial insecurity grow, many children are being forced to work in order to generate income.

People trying to escape the violence face other threats, including family separation, harassment, attacks from snipers, restricted movements, and the risk of running into improvised explosive devices.

Men and boys face the particular peril of being arrested and detained. The ICRC insists that when people fleeing conflict areas are screened, the authorities must ensure that the process distinguishes between civilians and those who might pose a legitimate security threat. Anyone who is detained must be treated humanely and be allowed to contact their family.

Generally speaking, the international community and aid agencies must remain agile in addressing humanitarian needs – wherever they arise – be it in areas where fighting is taking place or in the regions where civilians are forced to flee.  

While military victory and stabilization appear to top of the agendas of many capitals around the world, the needs of the existing 3.3 million IDPs in Iraq, and the communities hosting them, must not be left out of the equation.