Humanitarian Crisis Series: Protection

Humanitarian IconSince June, discussions on Iraq have primarily focused on political and security developments, often overlooking the urgent humanitarian aspects of the crisis. The lack of focus on Iraq’s humanitarian developments were perhaps best shown in recent U.S. House and Senate hearings on the Iraq crisis. Despite several hours of questions and response, few questions addressed key humanitarian aspects of the emergency.  While understanding security and political dynamics is critical, understanding the toll the fighting is taking on civilians is of utmost importance.

Since January, 1.2 million people have been displaced, bringing the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq to over 2.3 million. Within the past 2 months, reports have emerged about human rights abuses by both the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Iraq Security Forces on minorities within their territories, particularly the Yazidis, Turkomans, Shabaks, and Christians. Additionally, the crisis is undermining key water, health, and food infrastructure, leaving Iraqis in desperate need of food, water, and medical supplies. (Stay tuned for upcoming posts in our Humanitarian Crisis overview series)

Iraq  Aid groups set to massively scale-up assistance - YouTube Over 2.3 million Iraqis are displaced within their country. Those who have nobody to host them now stay in camps, empty schools, or half finished buildings. (Image courtesy of UN OCHA's video)
Iraq Aid groups set to massively scale-up assistance – YouTube
Over 2.3 million Iraqis are displaced within their country. Those who have nobody to host them now stay in camps, empty schools, or half finished buildings. (Image courtesy of UN OCHA’s video)

In spite of this situation, there are reasons to be optimistic about the International response to the situation. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has taken the lead in coordinating ground action and increased the Emergency Response Fund from the Anbar crisis. Saudi Arabia’s $500 million contribution provided an unprecedented overfunding of the UN’s Strategic Response Plan (SRP). The donation will go a long way in helping Iraqis during the emergency. (For more see UNOCHA’s video on UN Agency use of the funds)

Even in light of such developments, challenges remain in the international response. First, while the Saudi Arabia donation exceeds the $312 million requested by UNOCHA, the donation must be spent within the next six month, therefore the current crisis will need continued long-term assistance particularly in areas of food security, infrastructure and health. Secondly, the coordination of actors on the ground is challenging with restricted access to large swathes of territory in central and northern Iraq, a fluid displacement situation, and what some sources have called, “an unclear coordination structure.” Finally, the ability of the Kurdistan Region’s Government to take on mass migration movements and its border crossing policies are particularly troublesome in this time of need.

This will be the first post in our humanitarian series.


Courtesy of Iraq Body Count (https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/)
Courtesy of Iraq Body Count (https://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/)

Ongoing violence in Iraq threatens civilians throughout the country. According to Iraq Body Count,  8,660 civilians have been killed in Iraq this year. UN and medical sources estimate 8,060 civilian casualties and 13,598 wounded.

However, many of these incidents are not solely from ISIS actions. Both sides of the conflict (State and Armed Opposition Groups) have violated International law, principles of distinction and proportionality, civilian freedoms to flee areas of danger, and basic human rights.

ISIS abductions, mass executions, and persecution of Iraq’s ethnic and religious communities are disturbing. Their mid-july ultimatum for Iraqi Christians in Mosul was particularly chilling as they marked properties to designate residents as Christians, Shia Turkmen or Shia Shabak. (For more see below).

On the other side, the Iraqi Security Forces, along with Pro Government militias, have similarly violated human rights law. The use of indiscriminate bombing by the Iraqi Security Forces is particularly disconcerting. According to Human Rights Watch, ISF have killed at least 75 civilians and wounded hundreds of others.  Barrel bombs, a weapon typically made from a barrel filled with explosives and shrapnel, are dropped from helicopters or airplanes with poor accuracy and indiscriminate use. Their use has been high in the Anbar province. Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch spoke about the bombs noting that “… they cannot even tell a broadside of a barn from anything else. They will devastate, destroy anything within a very wide radius and they can’t target a small area.”(NPR) (Check out HRW’s Video for more)

Some Barrel Bombs become embedded in streets, posing serious risks to civilians on the ground. Courtesy of HRW.
Some Barrel Bombs become embedded in streets, posing serious risks to civilians on the ground. Courtesy of HRW.

The June 9th unlawful executions of at least 255 prisoners (8 of which were under the age of 18) in six Iraqi cities highlighted a disturbing trend of prosecution towards Sunnis in those areas. Throughout Baghdad and the “Baghdad Beltway”, the territories around Baghdad, Sunni civilians have been kidnapped and killed by Pro Government Militias, the biggest of which was Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq . Human Rights Watch documented the killings of 61 Sunni men between June 1st and July 9. Unfortunately the conflict places civilians between two sides that have failed to respect basic principles of international law. For more on protection and Human rights abuses check out Terry Gross’ NPR’s interview with Letta Tayler.

Groups of Concern:

While all communal groups (religious or ethnic)  are vulnerable in this time of crisis, Christians along with Shabak, Yazidis and Turkomans are particularly susceptible to violence from ISIS and other militant groups. Many of these groups are “Doubly Targeted“, victims of both the conflict and persecution on the basis of their religious beliefs.

The United Nations Security Council recently condemned the systematic persecution of minorities, recalling, “that widespread or systematic attacks directed against any civilian populations because of their ethnic background, religious beliefs or faith may constitute a crime against humanity, for which those responsible must be held accountable.”

Despite such condemnation, ISIS has continued to persecute minorities and “cleanse” their strongholds; eliminating important shrines, cultural heritage, and religious leaders, leaving Iraq’s minorities with nothing more than an ultimatum: convert to Islam, face execution, or flee.


On July 17th, ISIS issued a decree to Christians of Mosul giving an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a tax, flee or “face the sword.” The declaration came days after ISIS marked the doors of minorities for future targeting. Since then mosque of Younes (Jonah) has been destroyed and nearly every Christian has fled the city.

Unfortunately the Christian exodus from Iraq has been a longer trend in the country. Since the US invasion in 2003, the Christian population has dropped from around 1 million to about 300,000. Recent developments in Iraq have brought the future of Christians in Iraq into serious peril. Population of Christians in Mosul (once around 60,000) is now estimated to be zero.


Other groups like the Yazidis are in similarly desperate situations. Yazidis, numbering around 500,000, have always been a vulnerable minority in Iraq given their “Non-Arab” status and belief in a religion that combines elements of Sufi Islam with Zoroastrianism.

Unfortunately the group has long been persecuted in the country. In 2007 Suicide bombers drove trucks into a Yazidi village, killing nearly 800 people. These factors, particularly their religious beliefs, contributed to their branding as “devil worshipers” by extremist groups like ISIS.

The ISIS conquest of Sinjar and several surrounding areas on Sunday, marks a troubling situation for the minority.  Sinjar is an ancestral home for the Yazidis and recently took on a large displaced population from Tal Afar, a town which ISIS seized last month. UNOCHA reports that 30,000 civilians fled into the Dohuk province and 500 Yezidi families have fled to Syria.

Many of the Yazidis are currently stuck in the mountains without supplies, trying to climb high enough into the nearby mountains that members of ISIS would not follow.  UNOCHA reports that between 35,000- 50,000 Yazidis, 25,000 of which are children, are stuck atop the Sinjar Mountains, surrounded by ISSI fighters. 40 children have already perished as a direct consequence of the violence, with more facing dire circumstances.  If action is not taken soon to support the group, the group may disappear.

Shabak’s & Turkmen:

Recent developments in Sinjar have come to impact many Shabaks and Turkmen as well. Both groups, originally displaced from Tal Afar a month ago, were further displaced in Sunday’s Sinjar crisis. For many in both groups, the recent crisis is yet another displacement.

Turkmen are Iraq’s third largest Ethnic group, estimated 500,000 to 2.5 million. Shabaks, mostly Shia, are thought to number around 250,000- 400,000. Both groups have large Shia populations, which have been targeted by ISIS in Ninewa.

On the outskirsts of Mosul, both groups have been targeted by ISIS. Letta Tayler describes:

“ISIS would roll up in trucks with their signature black banners on the back of the trucks, jump out with loudspeakers and their AK-47s and call out in the village squares, OK all the Shia Shabaks, all the Shia Turkmen get out of your houses. Leave. Now’s the time to go. And then they would take all the men out and put them in one place, and they would separate the Sunni men from the Shia Shabak and Turkmen. And then they would take the Shabak and Turkmens and put them in their pickups and take them away. And most of these men have not been seen since this happened.”

Sadly, luckier Shia Shabak’s and Turkmen were able to flee to Sinjar, but now face a serious threat,  stuck in the Sinjar mountains, surrounded by ISIS fighters, and in desperate need of supplies.


EPIC’s recent blog post, highlighted a number of threats women face in the current crisis including murder, kidnappings, Sexual and Gender based violence.

In addition to direct targeting,  indirect violence (particularly on husbands and fathers)  presents a  serious danger for women and girls. Women and girls widowed or orphaned by the conflict face serious economic insecurity, which may force them to resort to forced and early marriage, survival sex, or establishing sexual relationships with those in power. (Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Non International Armed Conflict in Iraq)

For more check out the blog post here.


The conflict has taken a disturbing toll on Iraqi children. The UN reported that, “In all conflict-affected areas, child casualties due to indiscriminate or systematic attacks by armed groups and by Government shelling on populated areas have been on the rise.”(Report on the Protection of Civilians in the Non International Armed Conflict in Iraq)

Armed opposition groups, particularly ISIS and pro-government militias, have recruited children for use in conflict. Children are used as informants, manning checkpoints, and on several occasions suicide bombers. This use of child soldiers is in violations of the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, however International laws have little say in Armed opposition group conduct in the conflict.

Perhaps the biggest toll on children is the lack of access to basic services, notably medical assistance and water. These humanitarian concerns will be outlined in upcoming posts in our humanitarian overview series.


War crimes and violations of human rights occurring in Iraq are chilling revelations of human potential of monstrosity. Sadly, what we are hearing from Iraq may just scratch the surface of human rights violations occurring throughout the country. Access issues prevent many journalists and human rights investigators from reaching areas like Tal Afar and certain districts of Anbar, where violations may be more severe.

At EPIC we will continue to advocate a strong response to the humanitarian and human rights crisis. Our recent advocacy letter, with organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to Secretary of State John Kerry is just the start of our advocacy plan, in an effort to help bring peace to Iraq.

Be sure to check out the next blog post, where we’ll discuss how these protection concerns and human rights violations are affecting displacement flows and trends in Iraq. 

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