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Iraq's humanitarian crisis grows

The operation to retake Mosul has reinvigorated the international community’s interest in the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict in Iraq. This has also resulted in a raft of recent donations to address the coming crisis – many groups estimate up to 1.5 million people could potentially being displaced or affected by the operation to retake the city. However, Iraq’s humanitarian and development needs extend far beyond the immediate requirements in Mosul. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates there are already 3.3 million people displaced across the country with a total of 10 million in need of humanitarian assistance. In comparison, Syria has 6.1 million internally displaced and 13.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Clearly, the situation in Iraq is now on a scale that cannot be ignored.

On 18 October, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced Australia will provide $10 million for humanitarian assistance to assist with the impact of the Mosul operations. This is in addition to $60 million Australia has provided to Iraq since 2014. The Foreign Minister highlighted this commitment in Parliament, and noted that this new funding brings Australia's total committed humanitarian and stabilisation assistance to both the Iraq and Syrian crises to over $500 million since 2011. This funding total has been committed across seven years (from 2011 to 2018) and spread across Syria, Iraq and at least three other regional countries. See the chart below for an indication of how Australia’s 2016 humanitarian commitment compares with other donors.  

Total humanitarian funding for Iraq in 2016 

Data source: UNOCHA, as of 21 October 2016

In July this year, OCHA launched its Mosul Flash Appeal Plan requesting US$284 million to prepare for the humanitarian requirements of the Mosul operation. But as of late September only half of this funding had been received—and these delays have limited the ability of organisations in the region to prepare in advance. It is also important to note that the humanitarian needs will also be determined by the scope, form and length of the military campaign. The Mosul plan also indicates that ‘humanitarian partners, working closely with governmental counterparts, have developed a range of scenarios from limited destruction and limited displacement for a limited period to massive destruction and massive displacement for a long period.’ It also highlights that in a ‘worst case’ scenario nearly US$1.8 billion would be required to meet the needs of those affected.

Compounding these shortfalls, the UN notes that its US$861 million Iraq Humanitarian Response Plan has only received around half of its required funding. The UN’s Response Plan extends more broadly than just Mosul, and is essential to address the needs of those who have been displaced or affected by the conflict more broadly. But, as of September, these funding shortfalls meant that over half the projects in the Humanitarian Response Plan closed or did not commence due to insufficient funding. Granted, the dire humanitarian situation in Syria has dominated the focus of the international community, but it is clear the growing scope of the problems in Iraq also needs attention and additional resources.

And it is not only the immediate humanitarian needs that are concerning. If the destruction to cities that occurred in the battles to wrest control back from the Islamic State is any indication, there will be substantial ongoing requirements to build Iraq’s resilience and ensure long-term development, now and into the future. Ramadi, though a more extreme example of destruction than some cities like Fallujah, was reportedly 80 per cent destroyed with much of the population still displaced almost a year later. The UN Development Programme notes that 75 per cent of Iraqis see poverty as the most pressing issue in the country, highlighting the need for planning and resourcing longer-development assistance.

However, the UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF)—which sets out the UN’s program of work across a range of long-term development areas, also remains underfunded. Over the period 2011–14 the Iraq plan was built on the basis of needing US$1.95 billion in funding, but only managed to raise half of this. Given the difficulties meeting immediate humanitarian funding requirements, the prospect of longer term development projects receiving adequate funding appears low.

The Australian Government does recognise the critical role that ongoing support will play in ensuring stability in Iraq post-Mosul. In an update on Iraq to Parliament on 18 October, Prime Minister Turnbull stated ‘it is equally important that the Western world plays its part in building the infrastructure of peace cooperating with the government of Iraq to deliver a lasting stability and a more certain future’. In the same speech, he also noted that the Government was investing in the Building Partner Capacity training mission as a means of ensuring longer term stability. 

However, while critical longer term development needs of the country have been acknowledged as a key part of any solution to comprehensively defeat the Islamic State, both in Australia and by the international community, whether those needs are being actively addressed is another question. Certainly, the UN’s funding issues indicate that this may not currently be the case.

In this context, the Government may need to consider the scope and longevity of its humanitarian response in Iraq. The recapture of Mosul, when it happens, will not mean an end to the Iraqi people’s problems, even though the world’s attention may move back to Syria and the last key Islamic State stronghold in Raqqa. In Iraq, reconstruction and ongoing support will be a vital part of any lasting solution that prevents extremist groups regaining a foothold and should be a key priority for Australia and Iraq’s other international partners.