While hundreds, perhaps thousands, of articles have been written about the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the last year, very few of them look explicitly at the humanitarian consequences of the militant group’s brutal offensives. Indeed, given the many armed actors in the region, it is sometimes hard to isolate out the effects of ISIS violence on civilians, particularly in Syria where violence by government forces has been responsible for most civilian deaths in the country. Yet we cannot forget the main humanitarian consequences of ISIS’ military activities — the displacement of large numbers of people. Even if ISIS were to be defeated militarily next month, the displacement it has caused is likely to have consequences for years to come.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that last year more than two million Iraqis were displaced within the country, about half of whom sought safety in the Kurdish autonomous region. Most of these displaced Iraqis were fleeing ISIS offensives in Mosul and Ninevah. As a testament to the desperation of fleeing Iraqis, in August 2014 alone, some 95,000 Iraqis entered Syria in search of safety. It is harder to separate out the effects of ISIS offensives on displacement of Syrians, given the multiple armed actors, especially government forces, whose actions are also forcing people to leave their homes. Last fall’s ISIS offensive in Kobani was an exception where the heavy fighting was clearly responsible for the displacement of 200,000 people in just four days of whom 130,000 entered Turkey.
While people have fled the advance of ISIS forces in large numbers, they have also been displaced by the military campaigns waged by governments and other armed groups to counter ISIS. In Iraq, for example, Shia militias responding to the rise of ISIS, have carried out retaliatory attacks against Sunni civilians, including extrajudicial killings and systematic use of torture. The Iraqi Security Forces have also dropped barrel bombs on residential neighbourhoods in Fallujah. Both the actions taken by ISIS and by forces responding to ISIS have led millions of people to flee their homes and communities. And reports of impending military action in places such as Mosul suggest that many more may be forced to flee.
A disproportionate number of those displaced by ISIS in Iraq have been religious minorities. While minorities have previously been subject to harassment and discrimination inside Iraq, in the past year ISIS has systematically and brutally killed and threatened religious minorities, notably Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Shia Shabaks and Turkmen. Widespread ISIS-induced displacement in Iraq began in June 2014 when ISIS launched its offensive in Mosul. ISIS forces threatened the city’s large Christian minority with a grim ultimatum to convert, pay taxes, flee, or be killed. Reports of religious persecution carried out by ISIS include accounts of kidnappings, crucifixions, beheadings, widespread rapes, and attacks on mosques and shrines.
What does this mean for Iraq’s future? Entire communities have been displaced and many will likely never return to their communities because of fears of continued persecution. And as the number of religious minorities decreases, the situation for those remaining becomes worse.
Another consequence of the mass displacement driven by ISIS is increasing tension in neighbouring countries which are presently hosting 3.8 million Syrian refugees. The sudden arrival of 130,000 Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS on Turkey’s border last fall led to even greater burdens on Turkish social and economic infrastructure. Turkish leaders say that they have already spent $5 billion on the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have entered the country since the war began. Turkey, like Lebanon and Jordan, has also introduced more restrictions on entry for Syrians fleeing conflict. If even more people are displaced because of ISIS and counter-ISIS strategies, the burden on host countries will also increase. And as the economic, social, and political costs mount, pressure will increase on governments in the region to restrict — or even deny — entry to those fleeing violence.
Finally, it is important to point out that ISIS is making humanitarian action inside Syria even more difficult. Even before the surge in ISIS activity last year, Syria was the most dangerous operating environment in the world for humanitarian agencies. Almost 8 million people are reportedly displaced within Syria and several million more are in desperate need of assistance. The deaths of humanitarian aid workers, most recently Kayla Mueller, make it even more difficult to deliver assistance inside Syria. And a recent report that ISIS is putting its labels on World Food Program food aid raises further questions about how international agencies can ensure that aid reaches civilians in need and isn’t used to support radical groups.
At a time when the number of displaced people in the world has reached its highest level in 50 years and when simultaneous mega-crises are severely taxing the international humanitarian system, ISIS activities are increasing humanitarian need throughout the region. A recent report that two-thirds of humanitarian programs in Iraq may have to close because of funding shortfalls is indicative of the pressures currently facing aid workers working in Iraq. Responding to ISIS means not only developing military strategies to counter the radical group’s advances but also preparing for even greater pressures on governments and humanitarian aid agencies.