Child displaced by fighting in his village southeast of Mosul. 14 Apr 2016, Makhmour, Iraq (S. Behn / VOA)
Child displaced by fighting in his village southeast of Mosul. 14 Apr 2016, Makhmour, Iraq (S. Behn / VOA)

GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency warns more than one million people could be uprooted from the Iraqi city of Mosul during an expected government offensive to wrest control of the city from Islamic State militants.

The U.N. refugee agency says it is preparing for a massive dislocation of people from Mosul.  In recent months, the agency reports about 213,000 people have fled their homes to different parts of Iraq.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says he fears displacement may be about to get dramatically worse as government military action turns toward Mosul.

“Mosul, you probably do not need much reminding, it is Iraq’s second largest city," he said. "The humanitarian impact of a military offensive there is expected to be enormous.  Up to 1.2 million people could be affected.”  

FILE - Hundreds of civilians, riding on trucks and
Hundreds of civilians flee villages outside Mosul a day after Iraqi Kurdish forces launched an operation east of Islamic State-held Mosul, Aug. 15, 2016.

Edwards says the UNHCR is doing what it can to build more camps to accommodate people and mitigate suffering.  He says the agency faces enormous challenges because additional land for camps is scarce and funding to pay for this is in short supply.

He says the UNHCR is looking to set up camps in up to six locations across northern Iraq.  He says finding available land has become a critical issue as it is identified and provided by the local authorities.  He says the UNHCR and other U.N. and international agencies then assess its suitability for housing thousands of homeless people.

“However, the issue is fraught with problems," Edwards said. "Many private landowners are unwilling to lease land, other land may simply be unsuitable because of its topography, its proximity to the frontline or military operations or because of possible contamination by unexploded ordnance and other problems.”  

This U.N. map shows expected paths of escape from
A U.N. map shows expected paths of escape from Mosul

Iraq already has one of the largest number of displaced people in the world. 

Some 3.38 million Iraqis have fled their homes since January 2014, many multiple times.  The UNHCR says it has drawn up contingency plans to provide shelter for up to 120,000 people fleeing conflict in Mosul and surrounding areas.

For an on-the-ground VOA report by Sharon Behn from Iraq see "Fleeing Mosul."

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