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Iraq: Once Again People are Fleeing for their Lives

A woman carries a child as families flee violence in Mosul, Iraq.

An estimated 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes in Mosul in the past week as a result of the ISIS takeover of the city. Photos of traffic jams and reports from twitter indicate that this is a massive movement of people. People seem to be fleeing in different directions as IOM reports that internally displaced persons (IDPs) are moving from the west bank to the east bank of the city, moving from Mosul City to the Kurdistan region and fleeing to other districts in the governorate of Ninewa. As if the fighting weren’t enough reason to flee, people who remain in Mosul face shortages of food, drinking water and electricity. Few parts of the city receive electricity and when they do it’s for only 1-2 hours per day. Even those with generators face difficulties due to the lack of fuel. And for those who are wounded or sick, the violence in the city limits access to health care as the main hospitals are located in an area of the city where the fighting is most intense.

But the flight from Mosul is only the latest displacement crisis in Iraq. Humanitarian agencies have been pleading for more attention, and more funds, to meet the immediate needs of a growing number of displaced Iraqis. Between January and June, half a million Iraqis have fled escalating violence in Anbar while humanitarian agencies have lamented the fact that only 10 percent of appeals for humanitarian funding have been reached. Reading over the aid agencies’ reports of the past few months reveals that people on the ground are worried that there will be more displacement from violence in still other parts of Iraq. We know that violence in Iraq, as elsewhere, leads to displacement and we know that temporary displacement has a way of becoming long-term.

Iraq unfortunately has a long history of displacement. Perhaps over 1 million Iraqis are still displaced from the 2006-2009 period (on top of hundreds of thousands still displaced from the 2003-2006 period and indeed from the long and deliberate policies of displacement of the Saddam Hussein regime). In addition to these IDPs, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had sought refuge in Syria and who returned to Iraq as violence in Syria escalated. And when they returned home, many of these “doubly displaced” Iraqis found themselves unable to return to their home communities and joined the ranks of Iraqi IDPs.

The present Iraqi displacement crisis requires urgent attention to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of desperate people.

The present Iraqi displacement crisis requires urgent attention to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of desperate people. There is a clear regional dimension to the crisis which needs further analysis. But it also suggests the need for a hard look at the weaknesses in our present international humanitarian system.

Simply put: there are too many urgent humanitarian crises right now. Humanitarians are reeling from the stress of responding to multiple immediate crises. Syrian displacement is massive and shows no signs of slowing down as evidenced by the fact that 50,000 Syrians are crossing into Lebanon every month. The Central African Republic is on a downward spiral of sectarian violence that has all the signs of genocide while the deployment of UN peacekeepers is still months away. The scale of violence and displacement in South Sudan is both complex and massive. Indeed more than 90,000 IDPs have sought protection in UN compounds. And then of course, there are the long-standing protracted situations of Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and many other countries. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recently reported that the global number of IDPs fleeing conflict has reached an all-time high of 33 million with millions more displaced because of disasters, such as Typhoon Haiyan and the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

While global attention seems to focus on the rapid displacement of people, as those now streaming out of Mosul, the fact is that protracted displacement, both internally and cross-border has become an ongoing, largely invisible humanitarian crisis. And our system doesn’t do well with these simmering, stalemated situations. Nor does it do well in preparing for future crises.

It’s time to step back and take a hard look at the systems we have created to respond to humanitarian crises. The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit offers an opportunity to look at the system as a whole and suggest fundamental changes. In the meantime, humanitarian agencies need support to protect and assist those fleeing the violence in Mosul and elsewhere.

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