From the Field

Iraq conflict: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

Iraq’s political, social, and economic instability make it one of the world’s most fragile contexts, creating an environment vulnerable to regional unease. The country has a large population of displaced people — 1.6 million — including about 250,000 Syrian refugees.

Nearly 15,000 Syrian refugees have fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq since a Turkish incursion into northeast Syria in mid-October 2019. World Vision has stepped up its disaster response in both countries to meet the needs for food, water, and hygiene for the newly-displaced population.

About 6.7 million people in Iraq — half of them children — need humanitarian aid. The good news is that’s about 2 million fewer people than in 2018. And it’s primarily because they have been able to return home since large-scale military conflict died down. To date, more than 4 million people have returned home since the height of hostilities. However, the situation is still extremely difficult for many returnees and 1.6 million people who remain displaced in camps and host communities due to ongoing insecurity throughout the country.

From 2014 to 2017, Iraq was deeply mired in conflict with ISIS, which staged a violent insurgency of large swaths of territory. Fighting forced more than 6 million people to flee their homes at the peak of hostilities. Families displaced by conflict trekked for days to find safety in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Most of the ISIS-occupied territory was retaken by the end of 2017, including Mosul (biblical Nineveh), which was recaptured in June. The fighting left massive destruction in its wake. The recovery will be a long one, not least because the land is littered with unexploded bombs and munitions. Iraqis still need food, healthcare, water, sanitation, and programs focused on child protection.

World Vision and other aid agencies continue to work with local partners to provide relief. We recently launched efforts to expand our relief and recovery operations to help 1.1 million more Iraqis through 2020.

Help provide emergency aid to children and families displaced in Iraq.

History of the Iraq conflict

The current humanitarian crisis in Iraq began when militants attacked Christians and ethnic minorities. However, Iraq has suffered from decades of conflict with other nations and internal conflict among different ethnic and religious groups.

2014 — Insurgents attack

  • June to September: Militants seize Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and other key areas. Minorities are targeted for atrocities and flee to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a semi-autonomous region in the country’s north.

2015 — Iraq makes strides against militants

  • Iraqi forces and allies fight to restore government control, targeting Anbar province and Ramadi.

2016 — Iraq consolidates territorial gains

  • February: The last of the militants are expelled from Ramadi. As security improves, some families look to return home and rebuild communities.
  • October: The military operation to seize Mosul from ISIL begins.

2017 to 2019 — Fragile control is re-established

  • July 2017: The Iraqi government declares that Mosul has been retaken. The city is in ruins and strewn with mines and munitions.
  • 2018: The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 2 million displaced Iraqis will return to their homes this year. They will need aid to support themselves and rebuild.
  • 2019: Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people return home. As newly elected leaders struggle to form a government, millions are still displaced or in need because of instability and poor living conditions.
  • October 2019: Turkish military action in northeast Syria prompts thousands of Kurdish civilians to flee to Iraq.
In Iraq, refugees, displaced people and aid organizations that serve them are concentrated in the north.
Refugees and services for refugees are concentrated in northern Iraq near the borders with Syria, Turkey, and Iran. (©2018 map courtesy of UNHCR)

FAQs: What you need to know about humanitarian needs in Iraq

Explore facts and frequently asked questions about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and learn how you can help Iraqis in need:

Fast facts: What is happening in Iraq?

Iraq is reclaiming territory and yet faces internal conflict and a long road to recovery. Explosives and debris must be cleared from areas that have been retaken so that water and electric services can be restored.

  • About 1.6 million people are displaced within the country.
  • Because of prolonged conflict, 6.7 million people out of a population of 37 million need aid.
  • About 250,000 Syrian refugees are in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, making life harder among host communities with limited resources. Key needs: clean water, sanitation, food, shelter, healthcare, education, emotional support, and essential items to help face winter.

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How can I help Iraqis and Syrians in need?

You can help bring hope and healing to people displaced by violence in Iraq:

  • Pray for children, families, and humanitarian workers in Iraq.
  • Give to help World Vision meet the most urgent needs of Iraqi and Syrian children.

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Little boy in Iraq holding pencils
Ali, 3, from Syria, shows off new pencils and a notebook at the camp where his family lives in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. (©2015 World Vision/photo by Steve Jeter)

Why did Iraqis flee from their homes? 

ISIS, the militant group known for its brutality in Syria, moved swiftly to take and hold territory in western and northern Iraq, starting in June 2014. Mosul, Tikrit, and other cities fell in rapid succession. Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic groups fled the violence.

At the peak of hostilities, 6 million people were displaced within the country. About half of them settled in camps for internally displaced people, within host communities, or in churches in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Most are now returning to their home communities as the Iraqi government gains control of more territory.

Read how Hada’s family escaped on foot through mined fields and about their lives in a camp for displaced people.

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How has the Iraq conflict affected children?

Children and families have suffered from targeted violence as well as indiscriminate attacks. The communities they had built and enjoyed are destroyed.

Many children were forced to flee with only the clothes they had on. They are out of school and vulnerable to violence and health issues due to unstable and unhygienic living conditions.

As families who escaped ISIS-occupied Mosul arrived at camps, World Vision staff members were horrified at the condition of children. They were petrified, struggling to express themselves, and in some cases too terrified to speak, according to staff based outside of the city. Their physical and mental health was badly affected by two years living under a brutal occupation and then facing landmines, snipers, and fighters when they fled.

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What are Iraqis greatest needs?

Iraqis and Syrian refugees displaced by conflict need everything: clean water, food, shelter, hygiene supplies, and basic household supplies like mattresses and blankets. They also have a range of healthcare needs, including chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, plus others caused by poverty, exposure to the elements, and poor living conditions, including malnutrition, cholera, or diarrhea. Some face physical recovery from bombings or torture.

Children and adults who have lived through the horrors of war and persecution need long-term help coping with their experiences.

“Many children have been stuck in their homes while bombings, sniper fire or chaos ruled around them. Others have witnessed the death of family members,” says Aaron Moore, World Vision’s programs manager in northern Iraq.

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World Vision provides a range of humanitarian services to displaced people in northern Iraq.
World Vision provides a wide range of humanitarian services to displaced people in northern Iraq. (©2018 World Vision)

What is World Vision doing to help?

World Vision’s work in Iraq started in the 1990s. Between April 2003 and September 2004, World Vision staff focused its efforts on rehabilitating schools and rural water and sanitation systems. We also provided medical supplies to clinics and hospitals and supported displaced families with clothing, food, hygiene kits, blankets and mattresses, and cooking sets.

World Vision began responding to the current crisis in Iraq in August 2014. Our staff have served more than 1 million people in Iraq with:

  • Access to clean drinking water
  • Health services
  • Education programs, including assistance to rebuild schools in Mosul and support to teachers
  • Child protection services
  • Food provisions
  • Food vouchers
  • Cash (for most urgent needs)
  • Life skills training and apprenticeships for youth
  • Livelihoods training and agriculture assistance

In addition to providing food and other assistance in 33 camps in northern Iraq, we have provided generator and water systems as well as spaces for children to play volleyball, basketball, and on swing sets.

Some of our work focuses on the church. However, our overall aid efforts focus on helping the most vulnerable people, regardless of their religion, race, or gender. World Vision’s youth empowerment and family relations programs help families rebuild their lives.

In January 2018, we completed our registration with the government of Iraq to expand operations to reach people in areas of the country formerly controlled by ISIS.

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Chris Huber and Kathryn Reid of World Vision’s staff in the U.S. contributed to this article.

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