ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – “Mistakes from Fallujah won’t be repeated” said a UNHCR representative as preparations are made for the unprecedented influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the operation to retake Mosul from ISIS.
“There were many mistakes in Fallujah, a classic example of humanitarian failure,” Bruno Geddo, UNHCR representative to Iraq, told Rudaw.
Fallujah was a major ISIS stronghold near Baghdad in the Anbar province that was liberated in June 2016. Humanitarian aid organizations struggled to deliver aid and accommodate civilians who fled the city. NGOs feared that people faced starvation and inadequate housing.
According to Geddo, services for IDPs who fled Fallujah were incredibly mismanaged largely due to the screening authorities. Geddo claims that the groups in charge of screening were mostly made of militia groups who mistreated the IDPs.
Shiite militias were accused of abusing the mainly Sunni population.
“Protection of civilians is paramount,” Geddo said. “Meaning that when the security screening is carried out, it has to be carried out by a neutral institution force, the Iraqi security forces or the Peshmerga. This is key because the mistakes of Fallujah must not be repeated.”
He emphasized that in Mosul, it was important to ensure IDPs were given a decent reception and treatment with humanitarian teams involved.
Another lesson learned from Fallujah was the failure to provide a safe corridor for people to flee from. According to Geddo, in Fallujah, as people were attempting to flee, ISIS was “hammering” them with snipers.
And in addition to sniper fire, “people could step on the mines, get caught in the cross fire, or other ways get killed by ISIS,” Geddo explained.
His understanding is that in Mosul, “the military is more prepared with a thoughtful plan to make sure civilians who feel that they need to flee can feel comfortable.”
Other issues that plagued the management of IDPs from Fallujah involved insufficient fundraising.
As Geddo explained, “donors normally don’t fund contingency plans. They fund when the tragedy hits them on the screen. And by then it is too late. They fund humanitarian agencies to prepare for a disaster only when the disaster strikes. That was the case in Fallujah.”
The UNHCR was under-resourced and under-prepared for the IDPs fleeing Fallujah. “We had set up six camps. We get 65 thousand people in three days. It is obviously impossible to have a tent, a roof upon every head within 24 hours. It is just not possible,” said Geddo.
According to the UN, 200,000 IDPs are expected to flee Mosul in the first weeks of the offensive. This number could escalate to as high as 1 million persons in the worst case scenario.
Currently, the UNHCR has in place 21,800 tents, sufficient to cover the needs of 130,800 people. By the end of the year, the UNHCR will have in place 41,150 tents and 50,000 shelter kits, sufficient to cover the needs of 540,000 people. But what they are lacking is space.
“We have more tents than land to put them on. The land issue is full of problems. It can be contaminated. It can be too close to the frontline,” Geddo said. “There are maybe private owners that may be difficult to negotiate with. The topography may not be suitable to establish a camp because there must be a gentle slope. The neighbors of this land may refuse to receive these displaced people from a particular religious background.”
As of Sunday, 27 camps and emergency sites have been confirmed and identified by humanitarian partners through a joint planning process to accommodate displaced persons. A total of 13,372 plots are currently available for 71,522 people. A further 64,522 plots are planned or under construction.
“We are hoping to get there by the end of the year but land is not easy to come by,” Geddo said.
The flow of IDPs seems manageable at the moment, but Geddo believes that it is “just the tip of the iceberg.”
However they are hoping that the people’s displacement will be “staggered over time so there will not be this flash and flow like in Fallujah, which would be a disaster.”
“If we get right the humanitarian assistance, if we get right the protection of civilians, it would be a significant contribution to try to turn the page on ISIS in Iraq,” Geddo continued.
“I think we have a big responsibility because a botched humanitarian response, protection of civilians, may not work if the wrong actors are implicated.”