What’s being done to avoid a humanitarian crisis in Mosul

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Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Mosul, Iraq June 10, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo - RTSOKXB

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: the fight over Mosul and taking back the last major stronghold in Iraq for ISIS.

We take two looks at it now, with a Jeffrey Brown conversation with the head of a humanitarian group and, to begin, this report from the front by John Irvine Independent Television News.

(GUNFIRE)

JOHN IRVINE: Keeping enemy heads down. I.S. aren’t far away, and the gunfire gives Kurdish soldiers the chance for a quick look over no man’s land. They want a glimpse of home.

These men are from what will be the next village liberated. Having fled from there in June 2014, they can hardly wait to run. But while some people will soon be going back home, others are having to flee. They have just left Mosul.

There are a few more dangerous undertakings than escaping the clutches of I.S. and crossing over, but they managed it, carrying a few belongings and a white flag. Regarding the battle, with the help of coalition airstrikes still smoldering today, the Kurds did make important gains.

Under normal circumstances, the city of Mosul would be just 10 minutes’ drive away. However, for the time being, the advance here has been halted because advances elsewhere have not gone so well. These Iraqi forces want to wait for their colleagues to catch up before pressing ahead.

In a house in a captured village, we saw rooms full of piles of earth. I.S. go to great lengths to hide their tunnels from coalition drones. These networks amounted to extensive living quarters underground. We saw only a faction of one system in what is a small village. What must the defenses in Mosul be like?

JEFFREY BROWN: And for a closer look at what faces civilians caught in the crossfire, I’m joined by David Miliband. He’s the former British foreign secretary, now president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Welcome to you.

I assume that a lot of people right now face this immediate difficult choice of whether to flee the city if they can or remain behind and see what happens.

DAVID MILIBAND, Former British Foreign Secretary: You’re absolutely right.

We have our own staff now northeast and south of the city. About 1,000 people have so far left since the fighting began. We have been talking to them. And the perilous choice that they face is between staying put and waiting to see how the fighting develops and, on the other hand, trying their find their way out of the city, using all their savings for transport, and taking the risk with land mines, sniper fire and other kinds of interference.

And it really is a perilous choice and a terrifying one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, President Obama said, “It’s not something I expect will be easy, but it perhaps hasn’t been publicized enough the degree of planning, assets and resources we have devoted to this important problem.”

Now, I wonder, as the fighting begins, how much can the interest in refugees and humanitarians play into the actual fighting strategy? What do you see?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that there are two things that are important.

First of all, we have to say loud and clear to all those who are engaged in the fighting that attention to and respect for humanitarian needs is absolutely imperative. Anyone with any knowledge of Iraq, never mind any concern about the future, knows that the way in which the war is prosecuted has a big impact on what comes afterwards.

Secondly, there has been a lot of planning. The United Nations coordinator for Iraq, Lise Grande, is an outstanding public servant. The head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees is in Baghdad at the moment.

And the planning has been serious. But the truth is, if the numbers rise to the kind of level that the U.N. fears, anything above 500, 750, a million people, at that sort of scale, even at a quarter-of-a-million scale, it’s going to overwhelm the camps that are being set up.

And that’s why we’re putting such emphasis on the need to support those who flee the city and don’t find themselves in camps, but instead are staying with friends, are staying overnight in mosques, are finding informal ways of surviving. And it’s very important that they get support as well, in addition to those who make it to the camps that are being set up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, the U.N. has already reported that, in spite of appeals, it had not received additional funding for emergency camps and all the aid that it thinks it might need.

How would you describe the shortfall at this point?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well, I think that 60,000 tents have been put in place. If you think they could support a family, you can do the numbers yourself.

At the time of the United Nations General Assembly last month, the U.N. reported that the funding was only 30 to 40 percent of what they — of what was needed. Now, obviously, we don’t know the kind of exodus that’s going to take place, but everything the president said today suggests that the fighting is not going to be over quickly.

And, therefore, we have to prepare for a long struggle in which the humanitarian needs grow, both inside the city and those outside who have their lives disrupted for not just weeks, but probably months.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in fact, we talked last night on the program about the military aspect to this and how long it will take. And I see the same reports you do today that longer than perhaps people even thought.

So, when you think about those longer-term needs from the humanitarian aspect of this, what’s most important? What’s crying out?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think three things need to be preeminent.

First of all, all men and boys over the age of 14 are going to be screened when they leave the city, screened for obvious security reasons. It’s imperative, given the lessons in Fallujah and elsewhere, that there’s independent monitoring of those screening arrangements. Otherwise, the fear of persecution is going to lead to chaos and frankly to dangerous decisions being made by individuals.

Secondly, we need to make sure that, as the camps fill up, those outside camps get better support. The best means of support, frankly, is to get them cash, because it’s a market economy and these people will have used up their savings to get out of the city.

The third element is obviously the situation of those still trapped inside. There’s a lot of fear of land mines and other need for specialists’ help to help those civilians who are inside the city, even before you get to the new building process afterwards.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, if you could, to the extent that there are many military forces involved in this, is it clear who is in charge? Is that a concern as well?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think it’s a very dangerous situation for the staff of an NGO like ours. These are local Iraqi people. They’re local people who are working for us.

Of course, it’s a sovereign government. The legitimate government of Iraq is in charge. But you’re right to point out the multitude of different factions and the danger of civilians being caught in the crossfire. That’s why, at an absolute minimum, effective coordination across the — those supporting the Iraqi government is absolutely imperative.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee, thank you once again.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

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