An Iraqi woman and her child who had fled the violence around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, rest in the Debaga camp on Sept. 1, 2016. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

The battle for the northern city of Mosul could force a million people to flee their homes. But even before it begins, aid agencies are struggling to shelter families displaced by the conflict against the Islamic State.

The United Nations says it is nowhere near ready to deal with the fallout from the U.S.-backed offensive to retake Mosul from the militants, which could begin in less than a month.

The camps in northern Iraq are full. Debaga camp, 40 miles southeast of Mosul on the edges of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, was built a year ago for 700 families. It now houses 10 times as many people, most of whom fled fighting as Iraqi forces retook territory south of the city.

Crowds gather around reporters, hoping they are aid workers bringing humanitarian assistance. “Register me! Register me!” they shout. They complain they don’t have mattresses, medicine, milk for their children or diapers.

Many don’t have tents, with 1,100 families here waiting for shelter. They bed down in the classrooms and yard of the camp’s school and in the hall of a mosque. Some have slung tarpaulins next to walls in an attempt to shield themselves from the sun.


“It’s humiliating,” said Nahla Mohammed, 23, who fled bombing on her farm on the outskirts of Mosul five days earlier with her husband and three children and has been sleeping outside. She said she hadn’t been able to get milk for her 1½ -year-old daughter. “There we were terrified and scared, but here we are hungry and we’ve received nothing. We don’t want to be here, we were forced to come.”

When the offensive begins — the biggest yet against Islamic State militants — assistance is expected to be even more scarce. Aid organizations are strapped for resources.

About 3.3 million people have been displaced in Iraq over the past 2½ years, while the conflict in neighboring Syria has displaced millions more.

Iraq’s finances have been squeezed by falling oil prices and years of grinding battles to retake territory, limiting the government’s ability to respond. The United Nations put out an emergency appeal for $285 million to meet the needs of those expected to flee but says it is facing a shortfall of $165 million to provide the most basic emergency response.

“Almost every victory is accompanied by a simultaneous humanitarian crisis,” said Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq. “It’s a lot. Sometimes it feels like too much.”

The United Nations is scrambling to build standard camps like the one at Debaga. But if numbers reach the highest predictions, they will be able to handle only a fraction of those fleeing. Four standard camps, with the capacity for a total of 70,000 people, are expected to be completed during October, said Peter Hawkins, the UNICEF representative in Iraq.

Iraqi men who had fled the violence around Mosul board a bus in the Debaga camp before returning to their villages on Sept. 1, 2016. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

However, many more could be displaced.

About 2 million people lived in Mosul before the Islamic State took over, but it is difficult to know how many remain. The United Nations estimates that between 1.2 million and 1.5 million live there now. Some Iraqi officials contend that the population is higher because of the number of people who moved into the city to escape Iraqi army offensives to the south.

Those who find no room at the new camps could turn to the U.N.’s emergency camps — where assistance will be even more basic. Some, however, may flee into the desert toward the Syrian border, making it difficult for aid agencies to reach them.

“The military campaign is going to take off soon, and on the humanitarian side we aren’t yet ready,” Grande said.

With hopes of reducing the misery, the Iraqi government has dropped leaflets over Mosul asking people to stay in their homes during the offensive. In previous battles, for Fallujah and Ramadi, the cities have been emptied.

“Our main aim will be to preserve lives while still keeping people in their homes,” said Gen. Abdul Ghani al-Asadi, head of Iraq’s special forces. That had been achieved to an extent in an offensive last month for the town of Qayyarah, he said, “but Mosul is bigger, so it’s a much more complicated task.”

Despite the leaflets, civilians are risking their lives to leave.

Umm Abbas, 40, who used a nickname because she still has family members in Mosul, fled the outskirts of the city in August. She was separated from her husband, who had gone into Mosul to sell vegetables at the time an offensive began and Kurdish forces moved toward their farm, she said. The family fled toward the Kurdish soldiers, but her 12-year-old nephew was killed by a suicide car bomber as they reached the Kurdish lines.

“Now we’ve been here for a month and a half with no tent. We live here in the yard,” she said, indicating the packed school behind her at Debaga.

On arrival at the camp, men are separated from women and children and taken to buildings in a fenced-off area for screening by Kurdish security agencies. But even if they are cleared of having associations with the Islamic State, many aren’t released because there isn’t space to house them elsewhere.

Abdullah Ahmed, 52, showed a deep hole in the sole of his foot.

“I’ll have to chop off my leg by the time I get out of here,” he said, explaining that he has diabetes but has been unable to get insulin. Others complained that they had been held for weeks without being interviewed, raising concerns about how authorities will be able to deal with screenings when waves of people are displaced from Mosul.

“We are trying our best to provide the basics of daily life,” said Rizgar Obaid, the camp’s director. “But we lack space, we lack milk for the children and diapers.”

Grande described the humanitarian operation as “one of the most complicated” in recent memory. With the Iraqi state so fractured, the United Nations is coordinating the aid effort with nearly 15 governmental and military bodies, she said.

However, others have criticized international organizations for being inflexible and slow to respond to crises.

“If they want to give out a bottle of water, they need permission from Geneva,” Obaid quipped.

Slowly, some are going home. About 470 families left the camp to return to the village of Hajj Ali last week, cramming their belongings into trucks.

“What’s sweeter than home?” one girl shouted from the back of a truck packed with water containers and mattresses as it drove off.

Iraqi forces, including Shiite militias, are preparing to launch an attack on the city of Hawijah. Islamic State militants are preventing civilians from leaving, but some have made it out, arriving at Debaga with stories of crucifixions, beheadings and hunger.

“Things are going to get much worse before they get better,” Obaid said.