Mosul attack could leave thousands of children homeless, says Unicef

Tens of thousands of children face being displaced and becoming homeless unless humanitarian contingency plans are put in place by the armies planning to seize back control of Islamic State-held Mosul this winter, a senior UN children’s agency official has warned.

Peter Hawkins, Unicef representative in Iraq, estimated 1.7 million people will be directly affected by the expected attack on Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. “The prospect of being able to help hundreds of thousands of displaced people in a semi-arid area is limited, given the constraints on water, sanitation and shelter are extremely concerning.” The height of winter in Mosul is February, a potential time for the allied attack.

The UN’s ability to interact with the city’s occupiers has been close to non-existent for more than a year. Isis is not speaking to the UN aid agencies.

The UN relief appeal for 2016 is only 35% funded, Hawkins said, and so Unicef itself is $100m (£77m) short of the $170m it needs to handle the displacements in Iraq.

Hawkins said: “There has been no immunisation in the city for two years, and education has been limited. Trade with Syria has largely been kept open and the fertile area along the Tigris has been accessible, making access to food possible.”

But he added: “Trade and access to food for the city will increasingly become a problem. The hinterland is already becoming more constrained.” Camps containing as many as 15,000 Iraqis displaced by the fighting have already sprung up in towns such as Debaga. “The difficulty will be to the west of the Tigris river where access can only be reached from the south, and it will be very difficult to help those escaping coming out of Mosul.

“The worst-case scenario is if a siege lasts for a long time, then it will be very difficult to help. It is a flat city with two banks of the river, fairly spread out. Falluja [recently liberated from Isis] showed how crises can develop very quickly.”

Iraqi people on their way to the Debaga displacement camp on 3 July.
Iraqi people on their way to the Debaga displacement camp on 3 July. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Asked about fears Isis could resort to chemical warfare to defend the city he said: “We have got to be prepared for all elements of conflict to arise. We have got to make sure children do not pay that heavy price. We urge all sides to show a degree of proportionality.”

In a sign of progress, the Iraqi army claimed to have captured the Qayyara airbase in the Tigris valley, 35 miles (60km) south of Mosul. It would be “an important base for the liberation of Mosul”, Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a statement. He called for the people of Iraq’s north-western Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, to “prepare for the liberation of their cities”.

The attack on Mosul is expected to be mounted jointly by the Iraqi army, with its allied militia, Kurdish forces and a Turkomans militia. The degree of cooperation between them is limited.

Partly due to the separation between military and humanitarian work, few if any of the necessary direct conversations between aid agencies and army about the attack on Mosul have taken place.

Hawkins said during a visit to London: “As pressure is put on Islamic State in the next few months, that in turn is going to be put on hundreds of children either through enforced recruitment or exposure to conflict. We are faced with a whole generation losing its way and losing prospects for a healthy future. The rights of children whoever and whomever they are must be protected, whatever their ethnic and sectarian grouping.”

He said he was deeply concerned by reports of children being forced into recruitment to fight.

Isis has lost an area the size of Ireland – a quarter of its territory – to hostile forces in the past 18 months in Iraq and Syria and is likely to step up attacks on civilians in coming months, the research group IHS said in a report on Sunday. The territory controlled by the ultra-hardline Sunni group shrank from 35,000 square miles (90,800 sq km) in January 2015, six months after it declared a “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, to 26,370 square miles, IHS analysts said.

The conflict – including the recent capture of Falluja by the Iraqi army – has worsened the situation across Iraq, with an estimated 4.7 million children – about a third of children in the country – in need of assistance. Iraq has a population of 36 million.



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