There are warnings that more than a million people could be displaced as the battle intensifies to drive so-called Islamic State out of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. With winter on the way, which in Northern Iraq can mean sub-zero temperatures, a humanitarian crisis is looming. But it is often forgotten that there are already more than three million internally displaced people, or IDPs, in the country.
When ISIS swept across Northern Iraq and seized Mosul two years ago, many of those forced to flee their homes found sanctuary in the Kurdish north-east. Mostly Christians or Yazidis, they were welcomed by the Kurdish regional government. The majority of those escaping Mosul are Sunni Muslim Arabs.
Authorities' plans so far is to house the IDPs from Mosul in camps. There are only 60,000 places ready for those coming from Mosul, however, and the most optimistic projection by the UN is for 200,000 people escaping the battle. Now that another assault has begun on ISIS' stronghold of Raqqa, across the border in Syria, many more could be displaced than the UN expects.
If you want to see what could result from Mosul, look at Fallujah, another mainly Sunni Arab city where ISIS was pushed out earlier this year. Very few families were able to return to their homes even after the city was liberated. They ended up in no man's land: that's why they need the most help. There are 100,000 people in the desert between Fallujah and Baghdad, living in informal settlements without basic services like water, sanitation, or proper shelter. Some have been in this situation for more than two years, and if the worst comes to the worst in Mosul, the problem could be 10 times larger.
The reality is that of the 3.4 million IDPs in Iraq, more than 80 per cent are living outside the camps. That is where my organisation Catholic Relief Services (CRS) works, alongside Caritas Iraq and supported by the UK aid agency CAFOD, other donors and Caritas Internationalis members. We've built hundreds of shelters, latrines, and water points, and are recruiting more aid workers to cope with an influx from Mosul. We are also repairing and improving unfinished buildings that have become homes for those displaced by violence. So far we have helped more than 150,000 people.
This work is vital, because winter is almost upon us, and there will not be time to build camps for everyone forced from their home. Being a displaced person in such harsh weather is very hard, and we must scale up our work to deal with their needs. But one advantage we have as CRS and Caritas is that the Catholic Church has been in Iraq throughout history. Despite being a minority in numbers, Catholics are still a very active and engaged population.
The Church was there before the conflict and will remain after it – people know that.
Hani El Mahdi is the Catholic Relief Services country representative for Iraq.