The UN has launched an emergency appeal for US$103 million to fund the response effort in Iraq’s Anbar Province, where fighting between government forces and Islamic insurgents and other militant groups has displaced more than 400,000 people and reportedly killed hundreds in the last two months.
The money will be used by UN agencies to support the Iraqi government in providing food, shelter, protection and health care to families who have fled fighting in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, and to help those still trapped behind military lines.
“This is the largest displacement in Iraq since the civil war,” Mandie Alexander,
a monitoring and evaluation officer and Anbar emergency focal point for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), told IRIN.
“We’ve got around 415,000 individuals on the move, if not more, and that has happened in the space of eight weeks.”
Speaking at the launch of the appeal in Baghdad on 5 March, Nickolay Mladenov, special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, said: “Since the beginning of the year the UN humanitarian agencies have been working in Anbar Province and across Iraq to address the humanitarian needs of those affected by the fighting. UN and NGO resources, however, are diminishing rapidly as the crisis enters its third month.
“The Strategic Response Plan, [i.e. the appeal] if well resourced, will enable the UN and our partner agencies to continue supporting the humanitarian efforts of the local and national authorities,” he added.
According to the latest UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) report, 68,333 families have been displaced from their homes in Anbar. A 72-hour ceasefire called last week was short-lived with many reports of heavy shelling in urban areas.
The ongoing fighting has complicated aid disbursement and several UN convoys have been blocked from reaching people in need.
Some of the IDPs have been taken in by host communities, but many are sleeping rough in schools, mosques and fields, according to aid workers.
Neighbouring governorates affected
Two thirds of displaced families remain within the boundaries of Anbar, in the west of Iraq, but increasingly people are moving into neighbouring governorates such as Salaheddin, Kirkuk and Baghdad, with more than 31,000 across the border in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
“The insecurity is spreading,” said IOM’s Alexander. “We have seen insecurity moving closer to Baghdad, and also northwards into other governorates, and as a result we’re seeing displacements within those governorates too.”
The number of deaths caused by the fighting in Anbar remains unknown.
This week a UNAMI statement said that during the month of February 703 people were killed and 1,381 injured across Iraq due to violence and “terror” acts, but those figures did not include Anbar.
It cited a report - which it stressed it had not been able to verify - from the Health Committee of the Provincial Council of Anbar, which said that in February 298 civilians had been killed there, and a further 1,198 injured.
Zaina* and her husband Mazen* have been staying in a motel in the city of Sulaymaniyah since fleeing Anbar’s capital Ramadi in the middle of January. They are two of an estimated 30,000 recently displaced people now in Kurdistan.
“I could see bombs falling like rain on the streets, on children,” said a tearful Zaina, 52, who left her 18-year-old son with her sister in a village in Anbar.
“Everything was being destroyed. Fuel and food were becoming very expensive, everything was being shut down. I have a hairdressing salon. It was damaged, so was our house, so we just left and came here.”
While the majority of Anbar IDPs in Kurdistan are not in critical need right now, agencies are warning that as the holiday season approaches, hotel occupancy will go up and people could be priced out of their rooms.
This is a particular worry in the province of Erbil, where an estimated 11,000 displaced people from Anbar are staying in motels and chalet-style accommodation in the resort town of Shaqlawa, around 50km north of the capital.
In Sulaymaniyah, Zaina said she knew they were lucky to be in Kurdistan, where she said they felt safe, but she said they did not know how long they could afford to stay.
Holding up her hands to show bare fingers and wrists, she told IRIN: “I’ve sold all my gold, all my jewellery, everything we had, including our car, in order to get money to be here. I don’t know how long this money will last.”
The UN’s Strategic Response Plan, also known as a Flash Appeal, has been drawn up to support 240,000 people. The authors say that with the violence in Anbar showing no sign of letting up, there could soon be as many as half a million in need of humanitarian aid.
Although many families have fled Ramadi and Fallujah, large numbers still remain, many trapped inside military cordons imposed by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) who are trying to cut off supplies to insurgents and force a retreat.
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that even before this fighting, which began in January, the health indicators in Anbar were some of the worst in Iraq. The health needs, it said, were “immense”, and it warned that there was a “very high likelihood” that polio could spread from over the border in Syria due to the interruptions to immunization programmes.
Fewer than a third of primary health care facilities are functioning, and the main hospitals in Ramadi and Fallujah had been hit by rockets, the agency said, explaining that this lack of infrastructure, along with to the displacement of health workers, had created a “very complex scenario” and a “daunting challenge”.
Violent clashes began in Anbar at the turn of the year following a military crackdown on anti-government Sunni Muslim protest camps.
The situation has been further fanned by the involvement of Islamist militants from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which is currently fighting across the border in the Syrian civil war.
Iraq now has the second highest number of IDPs in the Middle East, after Syria, with a total of more than 1.1 million registered, the NGO Coordination Committee in Iraq (NCCI) said in statement on 4 March.
*Not real names