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Displacement Spikes as Fighting in Mosul Intensifies

FILE - A displaced woman, who fled from Mosul due to Islamic State violence, carries food in Khazer refugee camp, east of Mosul, Iraq November 7, 2016.

More than one month after the start of the battle for Mosul, the United Nations reports a marked increase in the number of people fleeing densely-populated urban areas of the beleaguered Iraqi city.

The United Nations reports a tripling of the number of displaced people over the past two weeks from under 22,000 to nearly 60,000 now.

U.N. data show nearly half of those fleeing their homes in Mosul are children. Women, girls and female-headed households, who make up much of the rest, often are survivors of sexual and other human rights abuse.

Spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jens Laerke, says people trying to reach safety encounter many dangers along the way.

“They face risks from direct and indirect fire, explosive remnants of war—that is unexploded ammunition lying around, and improvised explosive devices, but also possible retaliation from ISIL," said Laerke. "And, we have heard also in the past that they are at severe risk of being used as human shields.”

The U.N. reports more than 40,000 displaced people are sheltering in formal camps run by the Iraqi government in three governorates. The U.N. refugee agency currently has six camps open, hosting well over 14,000 people, with a capacity for 54,600. Thousands of other displaced people are living with relatives and in informal settings, such as unfinished construction sites.

A spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, Joel Millman - who has just returned from Iraq - says he was most impressed by the resiliency of families, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes several times. He tells VOA the relief felt by people liberated from Islamic State was palpable.

“The way they described the kind of intimidation and the random daily cruelty of some of these gunmen in their small towns…They are so glad that this is over and that they are out of that," said Millman. "The things they would say about—our children are not going to be sold as sex slaves in the market place anymore. That said—people really need a kind of guarantee or some sign that it is not going to happen again in five or 10 years.”

More than 100 U.N., international, and private humanitarian agencies are assisting people affected by the ongoing military operations in Mosul. They reportedly are increasingly worried about the ability of families caught in the conflict zone to reach safety and assistance.

The United Nations warns as many as one million people could be in great danger from cross-fire, snipers, improvised explosive devices and other risks.