The terrorist takeover of a major Iraqi city on Tuesday has spurred another influx of civilians abandoning their homes in the face of violence, adding even more strain in a region already struggling to handle the strain of millions of refugees fleeing Syria.
Militants fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — seized control of the major Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, prompting alarm throughout the region. Iraqi security forces fleeing as the group established their dominance over the city were joined by thousands of civilians attempting to escape even more violence. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which tracks the flow of people across borders, an estimated 500,000 Iraqis have abandoned Mosul over the last several days.
“A curfew has been in place since Thursday, 5th June and indiscriminate shelling is reportedly continuing,” the IOM’s release on the situation in Mosul reads. “Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are not permitted to use vehicles inside the city, which limits their access to basic services and is forcing them to flee on foot, according to IOM staff.” There are three main patterns of displacement, according to the IOM: IDPs moving from Mosul’s west bank, the older core of the city, to the east bank; IDPs fleeing to other parts of Ninewah province, which also has a strong ISIS presence; and IDPs moving from Mosul city to the neighboring Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan operates as a semi-autonomous region within Iraq and has proven to be the most stable area of the country in recent months.
The situation for those who remain is grim. “The violence has resulted in a high number of casualties among civilians. The main health campus, a group of four hospitals, is inaccessible, as it is in the middle of an area in which there is fighting,” the IOM continues, adding that some mosques have been converted to clinics to treat casualties. “Western neighborhoods of Mosul are also suffering from a lack of drinking water, as the main water station for the area was destroyed by bombing. Families are also running low on food, particularly families hosting IDPs in their homes. Few areas are receiving electricity, and when they do it is for only one to two hours a day. Most generators are not working because there is no fuel.”
Mosul is the second city to fall to ISIS control in the last six months. In January, Fallujah, home of some of the heaviest fighting between insurgents and U.S. forces during the war, fell to ISIS fighters. In Anbar province, home of Fallujah, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees says that clashes between ISIS and the Iraqi army trying to dislodge them has displaced another 434,000 men, women and children. “However, the full scale of the displacement from this under-reported conflict is unknown, as the Iraqi authorities have had to suspend registration over the past month because of insecurity,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters last week, adding: “UNHCR believes the current figure is now close to 480,000.”
Iraq was already struggling to both reabsorb Iraqi citizens who left the country in the face of the U.S.-led war and take in refugees from the civil war across the border in Syria. As its name indicates, ISIS also operates within Syria, fighting against both the moderate opposition, other jihadi groups, and the Syrian government. Their treatment of civilians and the indiscriminate nature of the fighting has led to the region being forced to take in nearly three million Syrian refugees. As of last month, nearly a quarter of a million of them were registered with the UNHCR in Iraq, nearly double that of the same point last year. The majority of those are in the Duhok refugee camp, but Syrian civilians are also located in Anbar and Ninewah. Civilians in Syria already uprooted once, those located in areas now overrun by ISIS — who may have already been forced to flee from the group once before — now will likely have to move yet again.