Tens of thousands of people continue to flee fierce fighting between government security forces, Islamic militants and tribal groups in western Iraq, while many are believed to be trapped in what are being described as siege-like conditions, sealed off from aid.
According to a new report from the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), nearly 45,000 families from Anbar Province have been uprooted in the last four weeks.
The total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) now stands around 266,000, although it is likely to be an underestimate, the three-page document said.
This displacement is the country’s largest since the peak of Iraq’s sectarian conflict after the US-led invasion, and it comes as the rest of the country grapples with a surge in deaths from suicide bombs and other attacks that in January alone claimed nearly 1,000 lives.
“It’s been an extremely rapid displacement of a very large number of people, some of whom have been displaced several times over,” explained Mandie Alexander, a monitoring and evaluation officer and Anbar emergency focal point for the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“We have gone from a couple of thousand individuals at the beginning of January to now more than 260,000. That’s around 10,000 families a week, which is a lot over such a short space of time,” she said.
Many of the IDPs have scattered around Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, which shares a long border with Syria. But some have moved into the neighbouring Salah ad-Din, Kerbala, Baghdad and Najaf governorates.
Around 3,000 families travelled north [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report/99480/Iraqi-IDPs-from-Fallujah-fighting-flock-north ] into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, where they were largely staying in hotels or with relatives. IRIN was told this week that an additional 1,000 families have since also fled north.
While IOM tries to keep count of those on the move - many of whom have nowhere to sleep but schools, mosques or tented shelters - there is a separate battle to get supplies to those in need, especially to the unknown numbers still stuck behind military lines in parts of Ramadi and Fallujah.
Supplies cut off
In addition to dealing with chronic fuel and power shortages, aid agencies say telecommunications went down in Anbar over the weekend, making it hard to reach staff.
According to fleeing IDPs, schools and shops in Anbar have shut down, food and water are running low, and sanitary conditions are poor. There have also been reports of mosques using their loudspeakers to broadcast appeals for blood donations and medical skills, both understood to be in very short supply.
|How IDP numbers have risen:|
|14 January: 13,824|
|24 January: 28,281|
|30 January: 37,283|
|4 February: 44,443|
|Source: Situation Reports from UNAMI|
In a statement [last week], Nickolay Mladenov, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq, said: “As fighting continues to affect the people of Anbar, I am deeply alarmed by the humanitarian situation of thousands of displaced families, and particularly of those stranded in Fallujah.
“They lack water, fuel, food, medicine and other basic commodities,” he added. “It is vital that everything possible is done to ensure that urgent humanitarian aid reaches those affected people.”
Aid convoys blocked
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in an emergency response plan published on 4 February, said the situation remained “volatile” and that “ongoing military operations in the governorate (mainly in Fallujah, Al Saqlawiya, Al-Ramadi ) ha[ve] hindered safe access of humanitarian assistance to the affected population”.
Farid Abdulkadir, the Federation’s Iraq country representative, told IRIN that the Iraqi Red Crescent was using its network of local volunteers to reach those in need. But while food and other items were getting through, “issues of security” were “creating challenges in some areas”.
In addition to main roads being sealed off due to fighting, several bridges in the province, including one linking the city of Fallujah to Baghdad, have been destroyed.
The UN has also reported difficulties in getting supplies to affected communities, saying this week that relief convoys had been blocked at checkpoints, and in some cases had their cargo detained.
“Access to IDP locations for delivery of aid is an ongoing challenge,” UNAMI said.
“On January 30 a contracted truck traveling with medical supplies from Erbil to Anbar in possession of a clearance from the National Operations Command was refused passage at a checkpoint in Anbar Province. The driver was detained and released several hours later, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) consignment remains in custody,” it said.
And it added that the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had also experienced similar difficulties delivering a consignment, which was also held, even though official paperwork should have authorized its passage.
Host community burden
The sheer size and speed of the displacement is also piling pressure onto host communities that are sharing their limited resources with the new arrivals.
“The influx of IDPs adds burdens to host communities. You have villages that were previously 5,000 people, and suddenly very quickly, they grow to be 7,000, and that has an enormous physical and social impact,” said Alexander from IOM.
“Health services are stretched. Teacher-to-pupil ratios change, affecting the quality of education. And there can be other protection issues relating to lone women or unaccompanied children,” she warned.
The violence in Anbar was triggered by government raids on Sunni protest camps, but it has been exacerbated by the intervention of Islamist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is fighting over the border in Syria.
The Anbar fighting shows no immediate sign of easing, with a hotchpotch of different tribal and sectarian alliances emerging, though so far - despite several threats, including one from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a televised national address - a full military assault on the city of Fallujah has not materialized.
The government is thought to be trying to avoid a high-intensity campaign that could cause large numbers of civilian casualties. Rather, it is said to be working to build allegiances with the different groups in order to bring security back to the area.
If the violence continues in Anbar, it could lead to a delay in the upcoming general election, slated for April, analysts have warned.
Funding for the UN’s response to the crisis has so far has come from existing country budgets, but money is running low. A Flash Appeal is being developed, and there is also a $5 million Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) proposal.