LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – An estimated 500,000 Iraqis have fled violence sparked by a sweeping offensive by heavily armed Sunni Islamist rebels, according to UN agencies.
Since Tuesday, black-clad fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have seized Iraq's second biggest city, Mosul, and Tikrit, and by Thursday their lightning advance had taken them to within an hour’s drive of the capital Baghdad.
An estimated 500,000 people have fled Mosul and violence has resulted in a high number of casualties among civilians, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said in a statement on Wednesday.
A protection officer with the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) described the situation as a “mass exodus” and said those fleeing were in a panic.
“They were packed into cars and buses under the harsh sun, and thousands were crossing on foot,” protection officer Gemma Woods said, adding that thousands continued to flee. "The needs are immense.”
Thousands of families have been fleeing to safe areas surrounding the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, while more than 2,500 families have fled to safer areas within Mosul itself, mostly living in schools and mosques.
An estimated 100,000 people have fled to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the UN is distributing tents and basic essential items, UNHCR said.
A further 200,000 people have fled to Dohuk, also in Iraqi Kurdistan, where UN agencies and their partners are preparing to deliver food, water and shelter.
UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, said on Thursday that up to half of those fleeing were children and thousands had taken shelter in schools, hospitals and mosques outside Mosul, many of them without sanitation, drinking water or shelter from the heat.
HOSPITALS OUT OF ACTION
The agency said it had received reports that none of the city’s five hospitals was functioning. Shops and markets are closed, it said.
Families are running low on food, particularly families hosting others in their homes. Few areas of Mosul are receiving electricity, and when they do it is for only one to two hours a day.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to unite behind Iraq.
"The secretary-general urges the international community to unite in showing solidarity with Iraq as it confronts this serious security challenge," his spokesman said in a statement late on Wednesday, the UN News Wire reported.
Ban demanded "full respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law in efforts to counter terrorism and violence in Iraq."
The exodus from Mosul follows massive displacement in Anbar in western Iraq, where fighting since January has forced about 500,000 people to flee the province or seek shelter in safer areas.
“This is an emergency on top of an emergency in Iraq – coming on the heels of other internal displacements of children and families in Anbar, as well as Syrian refugees in the north,” Marzio Babille, UNICEF representative in Iraq, said in a statement.