With calls for United States military action in Iraq re-emerging in the wake of an incredible onslaught by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq (ISIS) this past month, the integration of a military operations and diplomatic action again became a topic for debate in U.S. foreign policy circles. In particular, the role of humanitarian agencies and organizations in responding to such crises as those unfolding in Iraq and those already established in Africa and Syria has never been more important. These organizations, however, have been largely ineffective in addressing the needs of displaced persons, particularly and most evidently in the recent flight of civilians from Iraqi population centers such as Mosul.

In an effort to address the worsening crisis in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad, reinforcing promises of administration officials that the U.S. will support Iraqi efforts to combat ISIS:

“The future of Iraq depends on decisions made in the next few days and weeks.” (Chelsea J. Carter, Hamdi Alkhshali and Susanna Capelouto, CNN, June 23)

Doubling-down on assurances that the U.S. would not leave Iraq to fight off the insurgency alone, Secretary Kerry went further in his remarks after meeting with top Iraqi national government leaders, foreshadowing the possibility of U.S. military action while stating:

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that the Sunni militants seizing territory in Iraq had become such a threat that the United States might not wait for Iraqi politicians to form a new government before taking military action.

“They do pose a threat,” Mr. Kerry said, referring to the fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “They cannot be given safe haven anywhere.”

“That’s why, again, I reiterate the president will not be hampered if he deems it necessary if the formation is not complete,” he added, referring to the Iraqi efforts to establish a new multisectarian government that bridges the deep divisions among the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, Kurds and other smaller groups. (Gordon, New York Times, June 23)

Military action is often the only response to preventing wider conflict. The application of military personnel and capabilities can push back belligerents while providing space and time for aid organizations to apply essential medical assistance and necessities such as food and drinking water. However, it is in the spaces before and after military action as well as in areas where military solutions are impossible (politically or operationally) where international aid organizations are often called upon to stem the tide of crises that can destabilize regions, widen conflict, and spread disease.

The prospect of the widening refugee crisis in Iraq and its potential impact on neighboring states such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan has catalyzed increased attention by surrounding countries to the plight of civilians fleeing the areas controlled by ISIS. Videos (warning: GRAPHIC) showing wanton and arbitrary killing of civilians has incited calls for the international community to provide a solution to worsening humanitarian crisis emerging from areas of conflict.

Refugees fleeing conflict to areas across international borders has a dramatic destabilizing effect. The  cost of caring for displaced civilians and the high profile of their plight can weaken governments throughout an entire region. The wars that raged throughout the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia and the wider Balkan region are a good example of how the displacement of civilians in war zones can spread instability over borders and into surrounding states:

As events unfolded with unthinkable speed and Kosovo Albanian refugees began crossing into Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia), it became apparent that the broader humanitarian community would be dealing with a crisis of daunting proportions. This led the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to adopt an integrated and regional approach so as to better mobilize resources — both human and material — from within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent M ovement and allocate them in the most efficient way possible. Thanks in part to this approach, the Red Cross was able to respond to needs both inside and outside Yugoslavia. Indeed, the capacity both to provide relief and medical support to refugees fleeing Kosovo and help tens of thousands arriving in Albania, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro to establish communication lines with their relatives, and to assist people affected by the NATO bombing raids in Yugoslavia or to visit NATO prisoners of war held in Belgrade, was a unique feature of the Red Cross operation. It was its distinct added value. (Pierre Krahenbuhl, International Review of the Red Cross, March, 2000)

As ISIS moved into Mosul and asserted control, upwards of 500,000 refugees fled the city, many killed as they escaped in automobiles or on foot. Writing for the The Brookings Institution, Elizabeth Ferris outlined the causes of the escalating refugee crisis:

An estimated 500,000 Iraqis have fled their homes in Mosul in the past week as a result of the ISIS takeover of the city. Photos of traffic jams and reports from twitter indicate that this is a massive movement of people. People seem to be fleeing in different directions as IOM reports that internally displaced persons (IDPs) are moving from the west bank to the east bank of the city, moving from Mosul City to the Kurdistan region and fleeing to other districts in the governorate of Ninewa.

As if the fighting weren’t enough reason to flee, people who remain in Mosul face shortages of food, drinking water and electricity. Few parts of the city receive electricity and when they do it’s for only 1-2 hours per day. Even those with generators face difficulties due to the lack of fuel. And for those who are wounded or sick, the violence in the city limits access to health care as the main hospitals are located in an area of the city where the fighting is most intense. (Ferris, The Brookings Institution, June 12)

Going a step further to analyze and provide prognostication for the consequences of such a sudden movement of people fleeing the combat zone, Ferris provides context for the crisis by stating that the international community had largely ignored what was the germ of the refugee calamity and noting that the humanitarian issues in the area had existed for quite some time prior to the recent ISIS invasion:

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But the flight from Mosul is only the latest displacement crisis in Iraq. Humanitarian agencies have been pleading for more attention, and more funds, to meet the immediate needs of a growing number of displaced Iraqis. Between January and June, half a million Iraqis have fled escalating violence in Anbar while humanitarian agencies have lamented the fact that only 10 percent of appeals for humanitarian funding have been reached. Reading over the aid agencies’ reports of the past few months reveals that people on the ground are worried that there will be more displacement from violence in still other parts of Iraq. We know that violence in Iraq, as elsewhere, leads to displacement and we know that temporary displacement has a way of becoming long-term. (Ferris, The Brookings Institution, June 12)

Ferris does well to outline the problem itself and indict the lack of attention and application of aid to Iraq as ISIS began dislodging civilians from their homes in greater numbers in 2013. Recent studies indicate that the number of displaced persons worldwide has hit 50 million, its highest number since World War Two:

The report said major new displacement also has occurred in Africa, notably in Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Overall, the biggest refugee populations under UNHCR care are Afghans, Syrians and Somalis. They account for more than half of the global refugee total.

The United Nations notes 50 percent of the world’s displaced are children. The report says more than one million people have sought asylum in 2013, most in developed countries. They include a record 25,300 claims from separated or unaccompanied children.

Though most asylum claims are made in the West, High Commissioner Guterres said the perception that all refugees are fleeing to wealthy northern countries in search of a better life and not for protection is false.

“The truth is that 86 percent of the world refugees live in the developing world.  And, again this is the highest percentage since the beginning of the century.  It compares to 70 percent only 10 years ago.  So, the trend in the world is not only to have more and more refugees, but to have more and more refugees staying in the developing world,” said Guterres. (Lisa Schlein, Voice of America, June 20)

Around the globe, civilians and aid workers in areas of armed conflict continue to appeal to the international community for increased assistance. In particular, international commitment to the plight and needs of South Sudanese has been lacking and critics of the international community’s response to crises in both South Sudan and the Central African Republic have noted the failure of states and private organizations to provide for assistance.

Her final words provide greater reason for concern by the international community and can be applied to problem sets in conflict zones, particularly those in east Africa where South Sudanese have been pouring into Kenya. Ferris concludes that agencies and organizations dedicated to addressing disasters such as those emerging throughout Iraq in the aftermath of the ISIS onslaught have largely failed and need to fundamentally re-assess the systems and structures by which they are supposed to respond to such crises:

It’s time to step back and take a hard look at the systems we have created to respond to humanitarian crises. The upcoming World Humanitarian Summit offers an opportunity to look at the system as a whole and suggest fundamental changes. In the meantime, humanitarian agencies need support to protect and assist those fleeing the violence in Mosul and elsewhere. (Ferris, The Brookings Institution, June 12)

The commitment of international aid organizations and crisis management teams to meet the needs of displaced persons fleeing combat zones has never been in question. Organizations such as the International Red Cross/Red Crescent have done an admirable job in providing humanitarian assistance to untold numbers of civilians displaced from their homes in areas of prolonged armed struggle.

What does remain in question is whether these organizations are staffed and prepared for what appears to be an upsurge in crises throughout the world’s conflict zones. Refugee crises can provide fertile grounds for extremists in recruiting support for fundamentalist religious and nationalist causes, increase the ranks of our enemies on battlefields from Africa to The Philippines, as well as spread disease and instability for governments in neighboring states. Addressing humanitarian crises immediately with a response ensures that the national security interests of the United States remain a top priority.

(Featured photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the United States Department of Defense)