20/07/2014 16:22 BST | Updated 19/09/2014 06:59 BST

Let Us Not Overlook the Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq

Diplomats, politicians and the media alike have debated political and military approaches to Iraq's rapid descent into conflict. Little, however, has been said about the huge toll the fighting is taking on civilians. With talk of 'humanitarian intervention', there is a danger that the word 'humanitarian' is being conflated with military intervention - despite increasing humanitarian need in the proper sense.

Up to 400,000 people in Iraq have fled their homes in the last three weeks. Added to the 400,000 people displaced as a result of conflict in Anbar province earlier this year, this means almost one million people in Iraq have become internally displaced this year. In addition, due to the conflict in neighbouring Syria, 200,000 refugees already live in Iraq, mostly in the Kurdistan region. Yet when it comes to talking about the need for humanitarian assistance, there is alarmingly scant, if any, attention.

Ongoing fighting has made it difficult, in some cases impossible, for humanitarian organisations to access some areas, meaning a lack of information on the numbers of people affected and their living conditions. With access to many heavily affected areas, however, the Iraqi Red Crescent reports that many of those who have fled continue to move from place to place, making it hard to obtain a definitive and consistent picture.

What we do know is that many of the 800,000 people who have left their homes as a result of violence or the threat of violence are living in mosques, schools and makeshift camps, others have been taken in by family and friends or have managed to find temporary accommodation. Few have the funds to see them through a crisis which could last for months.

We also know there are already real shortages of food and water, at the height of summer, and during Ramadan. Essential services and supplies including healthcare and fuel are also in short supply. There is fear that further displacement and increasing heat could lead to the spread of disease. The World Health Organisation has warned of immediate and critical risks in Nineveh, Salah A-Din and Diyala, including the spread of measles, which is endemic in Mosul. It is also feared polio, which re-appeared in Iraq for the first time in 14 years earlier this year, could spread as fighting limits the reach of countrywide vaccination drives.

Both the Iraqi Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been responding since the fighting broke out, providing food, water, healthcare and shelter to those who have fled their homes. Reaching over 190,000 people between them, they are part of a neutral, independent and impartial movement whose volunteers and staff deliver aid on the basis of greatest need, often at considerable danger to themselves. Given the complexity of today's crises, it is imperative that the concept of 'humanitarian' be understood in these terms. Humanitarian assistance can and must be delivered to those in need, without discrimination, and without political, military or religious influence. It is something the Red Cross has done for over 150 years and will continue to do whenever and wherever needed.

It is not our role to discuss how best to bring peace, but it is up to us to address the impact of the conflict on civilians and their humanitarian needs. The need to scale up assistance is great and urgent. Access will become increasingly difficult in some areas - already aid agencies have to negotiate to reach people in need on a daily basis. More supplies are desperately needed in order to support ever-growing numbers of displaced people. Iraqi Red Crescent and ICRC volunteers and staff must be able to deliver assistance safely.

Let there be no doubt that the crisis in Iraq has developed into a humanitarian one - and that addressing it is what the term humanitarian means.