Fears for Iraqi children fleeing Mosul as coalition forces close in on Islamic State

Battle for Mosul: The fight against Islamic State explainedNewsweek Europe

At least half of the Iraqis expected to flee from Mosul during the offensive to recapture the city from Islamic State are likely to be children, Unicef Middle East regional director Geert Cappelaere has said. UN aid agencies have reported that fighting so far has forced about 6,000 people to flee their homes.

Unicef's Iraq representative Peter Hawkins said the agency has plans to assist more than 784,000 people, including up to 500,000 children. Hawkins says children in and around Mosul are at risk of death or injury from the fighting, as well as sexual violence, kidnapping and recruitment by armed groups.

An Iraqi boy who lost an eye during a bomb attack in Mosul poses for a photograph in Debaga refugee campCarl Court/Getty Images

Displaced families are arriving at the Debaga refugee camp as the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga operation to retake Mosul intensifies. Debaga is one of five camps the UNHCR has opened. It has the capacity to shelter 45,000 people. The camp, located 40km (25 miles) south of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, is already home to more than 30,000.

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One recent arrival told Reuters they she faced a very difficult route to safety. "We came here at night and Daesh followed us. We were scared because every road we took could have explosives on it. The Peshmerga forces found us and treated us well, they brought us here by car. Here we are happy, there the situation was dire – we had no food, no water. Everything was terrible, we suffered a lot."

A displaced young Iraqi boy holds a pigeon at Debaga refugee campBulent Kilic/AFP
Children who fled Islamic State militants in Mosul play at Debaga refugee campAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
Displaced Iraqis arrive at Debaga refugee campBulent Kilic/AFP
Displaced people who fled Islamic State in Mosul receive aid at Debaga refugee campAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
A displaced woman from Mosul holds her baby at Debaga refugee campAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
A woman who fled from Islamic State militants in Mosul sits inside a tent at Debaga refugee campAlaa Al-Marjani/Reuters
A displaced Iraqi girl poses for a photo at Debaga refugee campBulent Kilic/AFP
Tents are pictured in Debaga refugee camp where people displaced by fighting in and around Mosul have sought shelterCarl Court/Getty Images
A displaced Iraqi man walks past security forces at Debaga refugee campBulent Kilic/AFP
Displaced Iraqis arrive at Debaga refugee camp in Qayyarah, south of MosulBulent Kilic/AFP
Iraqi women queue for food in Debaga refugee camCarl Court/Getty Images
An Iraqi girl poses for a photo in Debaga refugee campCarl Court/Getty Images
Displaced Iraqis arrive at Debaga refugee campBulent Kilic/AFP
An Iraqi woman looks through a fence as she queues for food and hygiene kits at Debaga refugee campCarl Court/Getty Images
An Iraqi boy smiles as he runs with his bowl of food in Debaga refugee campCarl Court/Getty Images

Some 1.5 million residents are thought to remain in the city and worst-case forecasts see up to a million being uprooted. The UN has said the battle for Mosul will require the world's biggest and most complex humanitarian effort. There are already more than three million people displaced in Iraq as a result of conflicts involving Islamic State. Up to 100,000 Iraqis may flee Mosul to Syria and Turkey.

Iraqi refugees who fled Mosul arrive in Syria near Rajam al-SalibaDelil Souleiman/AFP
A child rests among Iraqi refugees who fled violence in Mosul and internally displaced Syrians who fled Isis-controlled areas in Deir al-Zour, near the Iraqi borderRodi Said/Reuters
Iraqi refugees and internally displaced Syrians buy food and water in Al-Hasakah Governorate, near the Iraqi borderRodi Said/Reuters
Iraqi refugee women who fled Mosul wait to enter SyriaDelil Souleiman/AFP
Iraqi refugees who fled Mosul wait to enter Syria in the desert area of Rajam al-Saliba on the Iraq-Syria borderDelil Souleiman/AFP
An Iraqi refugee girl who fled Mosul carries a young child in the area of Rajam al-Saliba on the Iraq-Syria borderDelil Souleiman/AFP
An Iraqi child fleeing violence in Mosul arrives in the village of al-Kherbeh in Aleppo province, SyriaKhalil Ashawi/Reuters
Zainab, a two-year-old Iraqi refugee fleeing violence in Mosul, arrives in al-Kherbeh, Aleppo province, SyriaKhalil Ashawi/Reuters

The battle to retake Mosul pits an unwieldy 30,000-strong coalition of Iraqi regular forces, US and European forces and Kurdish and Shia militias, against jihadis who have exploited the Sunni community's sense of dispossession in Iraq and betrayal in Syria.

Islamic State fighters, estimated at between 4,000 and 8,000, have mined and booby-trapped roads, rigged the city with explosives, built oil-filled moats they can set alight, dug tunnels, and trenches and have shown every willingness to use any number of Mosul's 1.5 million civilians as human shields. Isis would seem to have a plentiful supply of suicide bombers, launching them in scores of bomb-laden trucks against Kurdish fighters converging on Mosul from the east and northeast, and Iraqi forces, spearheaded by counter-terrorism units, advancing from the south and southwest.

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