Editor's note: This article was originally published October 19, 2016; it was updated December 8, 2016 to reflect the latest information.
A humanitarian crisis is looming in Iraq. Military operations to retake the city of Mosul from ISIS control began October 16. Some 73,000 have already fled the city and as many as 1.2 million civilians remain.
It's too soon to tell if more people will flee Mosul and where they will go. But we do know what is anticipated to be a long battle for control of the city will put them in the middle of a potentially bloody conflict.
Mercy Corps has already seen hundreds of thousands of people flee their homes in towns and villages south of Mosul over the last several months. The journey is dangerous; families lack access to food, water and other essentials.
Civilians may walk for several days and pass multiple screening checkpoints to find refuge.
Many people will flee the fighting with only what they can carry, and walk for several days to find safety. Photo: Cengiz Yar for Mercy Corps
The more you know about this crisis, the more we can do together to help those in need. Read below to learn about the people beneath the headlines — and find out how you can help.
Where is Mosul? How many people live there?
Mosul is located in northern Iraq and is the county’s second-largest city. Prior to recent conflicts, the city was home to about 2.5 million people. Many have already fled ongoing violence, but estimates indicate that some 1.2 million people still live within the city’s borders.
When did the conflict start?
Mosul fell to ISIS control in 2014. An offensive in 2015 successfully retook parts of the region north of the city, but until now a coordinated effort has not been launched to retake the city itself. Military actions began outside Mosul on October 16 and Iraqi military forces have since officially entered the city.
How long will the fight for Mosul last?
Analysts are now predicting the battle will last into spring 2017.
What is the humanitarian impact?
Residents have not been able to leave Mosul while under ISIS control. As such, we anticipate this conflict could affect the safety of some 1.2 million people who are still in the city.
A pipeline supplying water to approximately 650,000 still in Mosul was struck and as it is located in a contested area, it's unclear when it might be repaired.
“We are very worried about the safety of innocent civilians in Mosul city,” says Su’ad Jarbawi, Iraq Country Director for Mercy Corps. “They will be in the middle of the battleground, without clarity on escape routes and facing threats of booby traps and explosives.”
Two boys look on shortly after their arrival to a displacement camp near Erbil, Iraq, some 50 miles from Mosul. Photo: Cengiz Yar for Mercy Corps
This is only the beginning of a larger humanitarian crisis. More than 3 million people are already displaced in Iraq. There is limited support in Iraqi host communities already overstretched by the ongoing conflict.
Families fleeing the violence may not be able to bring anything with them and will not know when they can return to their homes if they are even left standing.
How many people are fleeing and where are they going?
As of December 5, at least 81,000 people have fled Mosul since the battle for the city began. But we don’t yet know how many more people will flee as the fighting continues.
"We don't know how many more people might flee Mosul or where they will go," Jarbawi says. “We are watching and waiting, and Mercy Corps team members are preparing to meet people’s needs wherever they may end up.”
People who have fled their homes wait in line to register as displaced, which will allow them to receive aid for their families. Photo: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps
We are focusing our response in the areas where families from Mosul are expected to go: Ninewa, Erbil, Kirkuk and Salah Din.
What are the conditions for those fleeing the fighting?
Mosul city is the center of the battlefield. ISIS is using civilians as human shields, and there is a high risk booby traps or explosive material blocking escape routes. Winter is now beginning to set in and the weather is getting cold and rainy.
A young girl stands with her mother after receiving registration documents. Photo: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps
As they go, people may walk as far as 40 miles or more to get away from the front lines. Many who fled towns outside of Mosul tell us they have worn out their footwear and are asking if we can provide new shoes or sandals. Some are walking barefoot to get to safety.
What will people need?
Based on our experience in similar emergencies, we expect that families who’ve fled will urgently need food, water, shelter and other critical supplies. As of now, it’s unclear where exactly families will flee to, or how long they will have to remain there.
Hind, 10, has been living in a derelict, unfinished housing complex for three months since fleeing the conflict with her family. Photo: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps
“We believe cash distributions are the most rapid, efficient and dignified manner of providing humanitarian aid,” Jarbawi says. “Even a small amount of cash lets people choose how they prioritize their individual needs – and this kind of program infuses cash into the local economy.”
What is Mercy Corps doing to help?
Our team in Iraq is working hard to meet the needs of those who have already fled the violence around Mosul, while preparing for the possibility of larger displacement from the city itself.
People displaced by the fighting present their ID cards at a Mercy Corps cash distribution center. Photo: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps
Right now, Mercy Corps is providing cash assistance to enable displaced families to purchase what they need in the areas they have sought refuge. Cash distributions are the most rapid, effective and dignified manner of providing humanitarian aid. We are also planning how to help the Iraqi people recover for the long-term.
Families reach through the window of the distribution center to receive money to purchase urgent supplies like food, water and shelter. Photo: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps
“This is only the beginning of a larger humanitarian crisis,” Jarbawi says. “The people of Iraq deserve more than a humanitarian response; they deserve a response that helps them heal their community and rebuild their country.”
A woman looks through the window of the distribution center and she waits to reach the front of the line. Photo: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps has been helping people in need in Iraq since 2003, and since then has provided assistance to 5 million Iraqis affected by war, violence and displacement across the country.
What can I do to help?
Mercy Corps urges authorities to take measures to protect the civilians trapped in Mosul and ensure safe passage for those on the move — including those traveling along the route, at checkpoints and in the screening centers. Here’s how you can join us.
- Donate. Mercy Corps is currently addressing the needs of conflict-affected populations, including displaced Iraqi civilians, refugees from Syria and Iraqi host communities. Your support makes our response to emergencies in Iraq and elsewhere in the world possible. Please give today to our Humanitarian Response Fund.
- Call on Congress to act. Mercy Corps is calling on the U.S. Congress to approve $325 million USD in emergency supplemental funding to help innocent civilians fleeing Mosul and rebuild fractured communities. Sign our petition and ask Congress to support innocent families in Iraq.