International aid agencies have stepped up their efforts in Iraq as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee from war-stricken Mosul and Tikrit into neighboring regions in order to escape the violence. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some half-a-million people have fled the Anbar province since January and an additional 300,000 people have taken to the road since Mosul was occupied by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants. Most of the refugees are fleeing east toward Iraqi Kurdistan and south along the Tigris river toward Baghdad in a humanitarian crisis not seen in Iraq since the U.S. led invasion in 2003.
UNHCR staff working on the ground in the Ninawa Province report that many people fleeing from the city of Mosul carry no possessions or money for basic needs like shelter, food, and water. They arrive at the checkpoints on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan with no idea of where to go or what to do. On Tuesday, the crush of refugees fleeing Mosul was described as a “wave of humanity.” By Wednesday this wave had ebbed but thousands of people in desperate need are continuing to flee everyday, according to the UNHCR Protection Officer, Gemma Woods.
The unfolding humanitarian crisis in Iraq has begun to garner international attention. Coordinated efforts between humanitarian groups, UN agencies and Iraqi government officials are just beginning and UNHCR hopes to provide emergency kits and thousands of tents to help the refugees. Amnesty International UK has called on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and neighboring countries to provide aid to fleeing civilians and for the international community to provide humanitarian support.
In and around the city of Mosul, the humanitarian crisis appears to be increasing rapidly. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that thousands of children lacking safe drinking water and sanitation facilities have taken refuge in mosques, hospitals and schools outside the city. Inside Mosul, it has been reported that none of the city’s five hospitals are operating. UNICEF’s representative in Iraq, Marzio Barbille, has called the situation “dire.” The agency is working rapidly to provide emergency immunization services to refugees in order to stem the threat of measles and polio, which has re-appeared in Iraq since the refugee crisis began in January.
A humanitarian crisis of another kind has also emerged in Mosul. On Wednesday morning, ISIS militants attacked the Turkish embassy and abducted 49 consular personnel and their family members, including the Consul General, Mehmet Akif Inam. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they are being held in another part of the city. In addition, 31 Turkish citizens have been taken hostage by the militants in a power plant in the Gyarah region of Mosul. The Turkish Government is currently working toward the release of their citizens.
The U.S. State Department issued a press release on Tuesday condemning the attack on Mosul and praising the KRG for their humanitarian efforts. The United States has pledged to provide “all appropriate assistance” to the Iraqi Government in the urgent political and humanitarian crisis. The Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, has called on the Iraqi Parliament to declare martial law.
By Steven Killings