Thousands of fighters have been training in northern Iraq to retake ISIL’s de facto capital in the country.
Erbil, Iraq – A military operation to recapture Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group could produce the largest civilian displacement anywhere in the world this year, according to the United Nations – but critics say the UN and Kurdish authorities are unprepared for the influx.
Last month, an offensive by Iraqi forces near Makhmour – which stalled shortly after it started – displaced more than 1,900 Iraqis from three villages, overwhelming the Kurdish Peshmerga’s limited facilities for screening civilians displaced from areas controlled by ISIL, also known as ISIS.
The Sunni Arab villagers were held in cramped and squalid conditions in a youth centre for a week, before most were transferred to a camp in nearby Dibaga.
Their treatment illustrated one of the tensions slowing humanitarian contingency planning in Iraq. Kurdish authorities, already caring for more than one million displaced people, are reluctant to allow more displaced people into areas under their control, amid concerns about possible infiltration by ISIL sympathisers. UN agencies, meanwhile, have advocated for civilian freedom of movement as a fundamental humanitarian principle.
“We were completely overwhelmed,” a senior humanitarian worker in Iraq, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said of the displaced villagers arriving in Makhmour. “We’re not ready [for Mosul].”
An eventual assault on Mosul could displace more than one million people, according to UN estimates.
“Even by our most conservative estimates, this could be the largest population movement anywhere in the world this year,” Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed that this will be the year Iraqi forces retake Mosul. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is expecting to receive between 300,000 and 500,000 displaced people from Mosul.
Publicly, the UN and the Kurds maintain that humanitarian contingency planning is proceeding apace.
“We are envisioning a number of scenarios and prepositioning supplies based on those scenarios,” Grande said, “and we’re discussing with the authorities how we can support these populations in ways that are consistent with international humanitarian law.”
Even by our most conservative estimates, this could be the largest population movement anywhere in the world this year.
The senior humanitarian worker who spoke on condition of anonymity, however, said that while contingency planning has been discussed ever since ISIL captured Mosul in the summer of 2014, little concrete progress has been made.
“We’ve been doing the same exercise over and over again for the past year,” the source said, noting inter-agency rivalries and a disconnect with Iraqi authorities have contributed to delays. “There are a lot of ownership claims and pressure to make sure [contingency planning] fits a certain narrative that is funding-driven.”
A third of Iraq’s 3.4 million displaced people have taken refuge in Kurdish areas, increasing the region’s population by nearly 30 percent, the highest ratio anywhere in the world. The World Bank estimates the displacement crisis cost the KRG $1.4bn in 2015, at a time when its economy was experiencing severe recession.
Kurdish officials have cited security concerns as a reason for keeping some displaced people outside of Kurdish areas.
“We’re looking at building camps outside of Makhmour in order to control security,” Brigadier Mehdi Younes, a member of the Kurdish Peshmerga, told Al Jazeera. “We asked the UN 20 days before to start to prepare a camp for these displaced people, but when the operation started, the UN still hadn’t started.”
UN agencies have acknowledged the KRG’s security concerns, but say they cannot support detention centres for civilians. In a rare public rebuke last month, the UN’s refugee agency cited concerns that the Nazrawa camp was being used by the Kurds to detain displaced Iraqis “in a manner disproportionate to any legitimate concern, including those related to security”.
“We cannot deny that security screening is necessary, but it should be carried out in a more humane situation,” Bruno Geddo, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Iraq, told Al Jazeera.
“What we are advocating with the government is that we need to maintain a level of fluidity. There are signs at this point that there is an understanding that we should not have detention camps,” he added.
KRG officials said they did not want displaced people to be held in camps for longer than necessary. As some of the people have lived under ISIL for more than two years now, “we don’t know who is cooperating”, Karim Sinjari, the KRG’s interior minister, told Al Jazeera.
After security screening is carried out, they are free to leave the camps, Sinjari added, although they will need a sponsor in order to enter Kurdish regions.
In the meantime, the KRG, Baghdad and UN agencies have been cooperating to create a plan to receive additional civilians displaced by fighting, he said. “We are working together and they are supportive.”
However, both the Kurds and the UN say humanitarian funding is grossly lacking. So far, donors have pledged just $75m of the $861m that the UN has asked for in Iraq this year.