As half a million people fled the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit following a takeover this week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), aid teams expressed concern that already-limited funds – and international attention – would shift away from the Syrian refugees who have already fled an ongoing extension of that crisis.
“There were concerns about not enough humanitarian assistance coming into Syria even before the most recent surge,” says Lama Fakih, Syria-Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Already, there’s not enough assistance coming in to meet U.N. requirements. People might be coming out of the country with greater frequency if and when ISIS takes [wider] control of northern Syria. It’s going to continue to be a concern that attention is given to humanitarian assistance in Syria.”
Unicef, the U.N. branch that deals exclusively with children’s issues, estimates that 250,000 children have fled their homes since violence erupted June 5 in Mosul.
For Iraq, it compounds the economic pressure already felt as a result of ISIS operations in Anbar province and an influx of thousands of Syrian refugees from Hassakeh and other Kurdish areas.
“It’s an emergency within the emergency,” says Juliette Touma, the organization’s regional communications specialist. “It will certainly stretch funding resources that are already very, very low for humanitarian aid and that will create a bigger need for donors to dig deeper in their pockets and provide more funding for us and other humanitarian organizations to be able to respond to the growing needs.”
Syrian aid provisions were facing severe strain before this week’s victories by ISIS. In Syria, the group took control of the eastern city of Raqqa last April and has been fighting for control of that province, along with Deir Ezzor, Hassakeh and parts of the north since then. Escalating violence in Deir Ezzor between ISIS and its archrival Jabhat al-Nusra has driven thousands of civilians out of their homes there since late March. The takeover of Mosul and Tikrit effectively merges its offensives in Syria and Iraq and could force the evacuation of thousands more from Deir Ezzor and neighboring Hassakeh.
The U.N. estimates that 9.3 million Syrians are in need of urgent humanitarian aid, nearly half of them children. More than 3 million live in besieged areas that are all but impossible for aid agencies to reach. Aid agencies say they remain underfunded, with the U.N. receiving only 28 percent of the $6.5 billion it has requested for 2014. Before the Mosul offensive, it was estimated that there would be 4.1 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year.
The lack of funds from international donors has led the U.N. to revise its two largest plans for 2014 – the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP), serving IDPs, and the Syria Regional Response Plan (RRP), serving those outside – several times.
The organization says that it will be stepping up its aid response in Iraq in a way that does not divert funds, personnel or attention from its operation on Syria’s borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Syrian refugees will remain a priority for us,” says Liene Veide, associate communications officer in Erbil for UNHCR. “As a humanitarian agency, we are doing all we can for the displaced people from Mosul, but it is a shared responsibility for delivering assistance. UNICEF is at the border distributing water at checkpoints and water and sanitation supplies, for example.”
She adds: “We have already said we need additional funds for IDPs in Mosul, but we do not mix Syrian operation and assistance with IDPs and refugees. Whatever has been planned for Syria will not change. We can’t take away from our resources for Syria and divert them to Iraq.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it already has funds prepared for Iraq and remains committed to what is under way in Syria. “From December onwards, due to the recent fighting in central Iraq, we had already stepped up its response there,” says Sitara Jabeen, its Middle East analyst. “And we had also recently just asked for greater capacity for funding and resources for Syria after we did a budget assessment, because the needs are so huge. We will not divert resources from Syria.”
In the meantime, as thousands remain at home in areas newly controlled by ISIS, rights groups also express concern over the group’s governing tactics. It enforces a highly conservative brand of sharia, complete with curfews and public executions of activists thought to be working against them.
“The success of ISIS in Iraq has grave consequences for civilians in Syria who might have to suffer living in areas under their control,” Fakih says.
“We have seen ISIS arrest those who oppose [their] rules, which have no basis in Syrian law. And there’s concern that the takeover of Iraq will strengthen them and lead them to perpetrate more of the same abuses in Syria.”