About 500 people have been arriving each day at the Debaga refugee camp in northern Iraq, with aid organizations bracing for an influx as the Mosul offensive proceeds. Some 11,000 refugees arrived at the camp in September alone, with a major surge in the past week since coalition forces advanced on the IS stronghold.
Most of the refugees bring little more than the clothes on their backs. They’ve walked for hours — if not days — to flee IS-held territory and reach the safety of this dusty camp outside Erbil.
But their journey doesn’t end when they pass through the heavily guarded gates: Once they arrive, the men are separated from the women and held for screening amid concerns IS fighters may be concealing themselves among civilians.
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Women and children are brought to the camp’s sole school, where they sleep on the floor while awaiting tent assignments and more permanent accommodations.
“Our main challenge, our problem is the space. We don’t have enough space.”
There are already about 30,000 displaced Iraqis living in Debaga, but aid organizations are confident that they’re prepared for the new arrivals. “We are trying to catch up with the wave of the new arrivals,” said Sadiq Muhammed, the deputy camp director. “So far it has been great and successful.”
But the reality is different for some in the camp, and there’s worry about added pressure from an new arrivals. Several women holding newborn babies told VICE News that they cannot find milk for their children. In another area of the camp, scuffles broke out at an aid distribution point.
The advance on Mosul, now in its second week, has been slowed down by IS snipers and suicide bombers, with Iraqi and Kurdish forces carefully picking their way through villages surrounding the city. It could be weeks or even months before they’re able to move into Mosul.
Once they do, aid organizations expect the trickle of people fleeing the violence to turn into a flood – with some estimating up to 1 million people could be displaced by the offensive. “Our main challenge, our problem, is the space,” Muhammed added. “We don’t have enough space.”