How Iraqis risk their lives trapped in conflict or trying to escape
Learning from Anbar in time for Mosul
In May and June 2016, an estimated 85,0001 people fled from locations in and around Fallujah City, following operations by the Iraqi military to retake those areas from ISIS. These civilians are now mostly living in makeshift camps in Ameriyat al Fallujah, Habaniyah Tourist City and Khalidiya, and in host communities in other parts of Anbar governorate, as well as a limited number in Baghdad governorate, having undergone a gruelling journey towards safety.
This journey has involved numerous obstacles to movement and associated protection risks, including threat to life.
However, the recent events in Anbar and the resulting humanitarian consequences for civilians will be dwarfed by the access and protection challenges civilians will face when the anticipated military operations on Mosul begin, with over ten times as many people expected to flee.
We have an opportunity now to learn the lessons of Anbar to minimise the risks facing civilians and to prepare ahead of Mosul.
Lack of Access to Safety
The recent events in Fallujah reflect a much larger displacement trend within Iraq since the start of 2015. Military operations, such as those in Ramadi and Heet in Anbar governorate in December 2015 and March 2016, and in Tikrit in Salah al Din governorate in 2015, have left hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians struggling to access safety and humanitarian assistance. In trying to reach safety, civilians have faced various challenges.
First, ISIS – and occasionally other armed actors – prevent people from leaving. They do so by making threats against civilians, killing those trying to escape, confiscating documents and through harassment, amongst other means. As a result, civilians face terrible conditions, including ongoing violence and a lack of food and water. Some of Fallujah’s population has been forced to survive on dates and to drink unsafe water from agricultural wells or the river.
Second, civilians have not been able to access genuinely safe routes away from conflict and violence.
Those who do manage to escape often encounter further threats to their lives on their way to relative safety as routes are contaminated with unexploded ordnance and are sometimes patrolled by ISIS or other armed groups. Even once civilians do manage to escape these dangers, they face subsequent impediments to their freedom of movement and swift onward access to protection and assistance, such as challenges faced at checkpoints and security screening procedures.
Understanding the trends and risks as recently observed in Anbar governorate, and their wider implications, provides opportunities for all responsible parties to apply what has been learnt now and to mitigate any such risks ahead of the anticipated operations in Mosul.
Operational Challenges in the Recent Fallujah Response
In addition to the protection challenges that civilians face in fleeing conflict and violence, aid agencies and the Iraqi authorities have struggled collectively to meet the needs of civilians. Since the start of the military operations in Fallujah, the humanitarian community has struggled to secure the right donor resources, gain stable and secure access to the displacement camps inside Anbar, and scale up sufficiently to meet the needs of more than 85,000 displaced Iraqi civilians from the city and surrounding areas. The current appeal for Iraq is only 38% funded, despite the significant need and periodic but significant peaks in displacement.
Displaced civilians living in camps and host communities in Anbar have not been able to access sufficient quantities and quality of food, drinking water, shelter, medical supplies or protection services, such as psychosocial support and child protection. Additionally, there has been a shortage of latrines and a lack of basic provision for their use by women such as gender segregation. The main challenges faced by aid agencies are the lengthy bureaucratic procedures necessary to establish a presence and gain access, ongoing security challenges in Anbar governorate, limited donor funding and the difficulties of supporting a large number of people arriving in a short space of time.
Looking Ahead towards Mosul
The crisis in Fallujah (and Anbar more broadly) represents a test case for the Iraqi government and the international community; together they need to implement preparedness measures to reduce the protection challenges that civilians are facing, guide them towards safety, and ensure adequate assistance – both on their journey and in displacement – ahead of anticipated military operations in Mosul.
Today we have an opportunity, while the attention of the world is on events in Iraq, to invest in robust humanitarian planning and preparedness, to provide much-needed protection assistance to the Iraqi community, and to ensure the building blocks are in place for a stable and peaceful future Iraq.
ALL PARTIES TO THE CONFLICT:
- Must immediately cease all human rights and IHL abuses; and the Government of Iraq must investigate and take appropriate action where there are credible allegations of violations;
-Should immediately halt any actions that prevent civilians from fleeing to safety, in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL).
THE GOVERNMENT OF IRAQ, INCLUDING NATIONAL, REGIONAL AND LOCAL STRUCTURES:
Should take steps to ensure freedom of movement for civilians, in line with its obligations under national legislation and facilitate access to protection and assistance without discrimination;
Should avoid communicating to the civilian population that safe routes exist where there are ongoing security challenges, such as the presence of mines and armed actors. In cases where it is anticipated that civilians will try to access routes towards safety, steps should be taken to ensure appropriate communication with civilians, decontamination and sustained protection of the routes;
Should consider requesting the deployment of a UN monitoring team to areas where civilians face acute protection threats, such as holding areas for people awaiting screening and zones controlled by non-state armed groups.
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY, IN PARTICULAR THE US-LED COALITION:
Must take immediate steps to ensure respect for international human rights and IHL and to hold all parties accountable to these standards, in order to counter impunity and help deter future violations;
Should deploy an adequately resourced UN monitoring team to support the Government of Iraq in its efforts to protect civilians, and ensure the UN monitoring teams work closely with civil society, women, youth and religious leaders on protection of civilians in Iraq;
Must ensure that there is the required humanitarian funding and resources to be able to offer immediate aid, safety and protection to people who are displaced as a result of military operations.
THE UN AGENCIES AND THE INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN AGENCIES:
Must scale up preparedness measures by pre-positioning emergency stock and consider additional staffing and resource capacity ahead of Mosul operations; ³ Must significantly scale up protection programming, monitoring, reporting and advocacy efforts in Iraq and support local Iraqi aid organisations to do likewise;
In particular, the OCHA should increase their civil–military coordination capacity so they are able to go beyond de-confliction and take active steps towards increasing stable and secure access for aid organisations to reach affected populations.