Which way to run from war-torn Mosul? How desperate do you have to be to flee across the border into Syria?!

Syria seems the very opposite of safety or sanctuary. But as aid agencies in Iraq steel themselves for a possible outpouring from Mosul, ShelterBox and its partners find that even Syrian camps are now becoming boltholes for families on the run. 


Shelterbox aid being distributed to Iraqi IDPs

Mosul in Iraq, home to over a million civilians, now trapped by an intense battle to reclaim the last ISIS stronghold in the country. At any point, in any numbers, in any direction, hundreds of thousands could suddenly be on the run from warfare.

Some 80,000 civilians have fled Mosul and nearby areas so far, and the United Nations is preparing for a worst-case scenario in which more than a million people are made homeless as winter descends. ‘Children and their families in Mosul are facing a horrific situation. Not only are they in danger of getting killed or injured in the cross-fire, now potentially more than half a million people do not have safe water to drink,’ said UNICEF’s Iraq representative Peter Hawkins.

Iraqi children wearing red ShelterBox hats, scarves and gloves

Now reports from a partner organisation distributing ShelterBox aid in Hasake Governorate point to significant numbers fleeing east from Mosul into Syria. New Zealand based ReliefAid is one of ShelterBox’s long-standing distribution partners in Syria. Likewise London-based Hand in Hand for Syria, delivering ShelterBox tents and warm clothing to Syrian displacement camps (see photo), also finds some beneficiaries are from Mosul.

ReliefAid Executive Director Mike Seawright says, ‘We recently completed our ShelterBox distribution in Syria’s North Eastern Hasake Governorate, bordering Iraq. We were supporting a refugee camp in which 80% of the families were from Mosul or surrounding areas.’

This is a constantly changing situation, but ReliefAid reports that thousands of families from Mosul have recently found crossing the border into Syria preferable to taking their chances in Iraq. This is counter-intuitive, a turning of the human tide, which is forcing families from one dire situation into another.

And now the military offensive on Raqqa in Syria is creating another dynamic. Mike Seawright adds, ‘The offensive against ISIS in Raqqa is displacing more civilians into Hasake Governorate. Initial reports are that displaced families have been arriving into camps in the North of Syria over the last few days. These numbers are expected to increase as the military action gains momentum. Combined with the Mosul offensive unmet humanitarian needs, including shelter, are expected to continue to increase dramatically within the Governorate.‘

mosul4

All ShelterBox partners in Syria and Iraq – ReliefAid, Hand in Hand for Syria, ACTED and new associates Czech-based People in Need – deliver life-saving aid to communities under fire, working in some of the most dangerous places on earth, security issues dictating discretion and a low profile. 

Alongside ongoing work inside Syria, ShelterBox has been preparing for whatever Mosul will create in terms of humanitarian need. Via ACTED households in Northern Iraq have already received basic shelter-related kits from ShelterBox, and tents and aid are prepositioned ready to deploy as families are displaced from the fighting. 1,000 beneficiary households in Ninewa and Erbil Governorates will receive first line shelter support. Thousands of lightweight tents are also on standby, for use in agreement with Shelter Cluster leads.

ShelterBox’s Rachel Harvey has just ended a deployment to Iraq, including a field visit to locations in Ninewa province where aid convoys have to pass through several military checkpoints. Rachel said of this journey, ‘The close proximity of the fighting is really striking. One minute you are drinking coffee in a hotel, an hour and a half later you are driving through an obliterated village on your way to deliver aid to people displaced by a conflict you can hear being waged on the horizon. The distance between peace and relative prosperity, and the devastation of war is frighteningly short.’ 

Response Team volunteer, Jack Bailey is still in Iraq training partners in use of the charity’s aid. Jack says, ‘Our preparedness is the result of months of planning, and of course the generosity of our donors. But, however much notice we have had of a Mosul displacement, there are still many unknowns. We will have to respond as events unfold, and look to our supporters to help us meet the demand.’   

ReliefAid has had to make the difficult decision to move its current winter aid distribution to the Idlib countryside as a result of the terrible situation in Aleppo City. Continued attacks against civilians, extreme medical shortages, zero access to humanitarian assistance and severe food shortages are causing the already dire living situation to deteriorate rapidly.

Aleppo, Mosul, now Raqqa. ShelterBox and its international partners stand ready to help families on the run from war wherever it is safe to do so. But this region will soon be in the grip of an icy winter, with storms and freezing overnight temperatures a real threat to families trapped in ruined cities,  fleeing across desert or up into the mountains.

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