The number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq continues to pose a significant humanitarian challenge for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Iraqi authorities. An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis were displaced as a result of the 2006-2008 widespread sectarian violence and there have been consistent warning signs over the past year that the country is on the verge of returning to some of its darkest days of internal conflict. With such conflict come new waves of IDPs that join the existing victims of sectarian violence to form one of the most vulnerable populations of people inside Iraq. Between April and December 2013 more than 1000 families were displaced, mainly in Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Basra, due to increased security threats. The fear of violence and a deteriorating security situation also sadly prevent existing IDPs from returning home. In 2013 the UN estimated the number of IDPs in Iraq to be approximately 1.13 million.
Prior to the worrying destabilization of Anbar province this month, the United Nations (UN) had already expressed clear concerns that Iraq was facing a new crisis regarding an increasing number of IDPs and deteriorating living conditions for this vulnerable section of Iraqi society. Since the outbreak of sporadic conflict in and around Fallujah and Ramadi and the emergence of impending large-scale Iraqi security force offensives in these cities, thousands of families have made the difficult decision to abandon their homes in fear of their own safety. NGOs, UN agencies and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) have released estimates that vary greatly but indicate that a total of more than 100,000 people (22,000 families) have been displaced from and within Anbar since the start of the violence. The vast majority of displacement has been from families living in Fallujah.
The situation in Fallujah and Ramadi is developing rapidly and field situation reports published by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) have confirmed that the main reason for families leaving their homes has been the deteriorating security situation. For a few weeks families were facing difficulties in obtaining food and fuel but most decided not to leave. However as the threat of violence and head-on conflict have increased the difficult decision to leave has been taken out of their hands. The associated strain on local hospitals also appears to have been intensifying as the frequency of casualties requiring urgent medical treatment continues to provide a significant burden upon available resources. More than 71 civilians have been killed and 319 injured as a result of the conflict in Anbar, according to UN statistics.
NCCI field situation reports have shown that displaced families have been seeking refuge in local schools, old housing and storage places that are strongly unsuitable for residence over a sustained period of time. These families have been in great need of items such as blankets, mattresses, cooking appliances and food items. The availability and pricing of food items and fuel have been significantly affected by the ongoing violence. Rental of local housing has also escalated to about four times the original cost in some locations, which has greatly hindered displaced families looking to somewhere to lodge. Other displaced families have been luckier in that they have been hosted by family relatives.
The humanitarian response up until now for displaced families in Anbar has faced significant constraints that have arisen due to the complexity of the conflict. Checkpoints have been closed by security forces for long periods and other roads and accesses have fallen under the control of militants. Fields workers for local community groups, religious groups and NGOs such as the Iraqi Red Crescent have been bravely operating under treacherous conditions in order to distribute relief supplies, which up until now have been received from very limited resources. The conflict is dynamic and has been evolving at a pace that is difficult to keep up with when planning comprehensive relief efforts. Access routes that are open one day may quickly become blocked as the violence becomes scattered in an increasingly desperate battle for territorial control. Limited access to areas has also been a sizeable obstacle to carrying out detailed needs assessments for the IDPs in Anbar.
Whilst the majority of displaced families still remain in Anbar, a large number have also been displaced to other regions in Iraq. This presents a wider challenge for the humanitarian response effort. According to NCCI’s field network there are around 15,000 IDPs in Iraqi Kurdistan (Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Dohuk) that have been displaced from Fallujah and Ramadi, in addition to the significant number of IDPs that are now located in the Iraqi regions of Salah-al-Din, Kerbala, Najaf, and Baghdad. Displaced families in Iraqi Kurdistan may feel relieved that they have found their way to this relative safe haven but will quickly find themselves staring in the face of new challenges. Families are beginning to complain about high prices for the rental housing and the difficulty of obtaining residency, which is now being renewed on a weekly basis at the discretion of local security forces. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is currently working alongside aid agencies to set up a temporary camp for the IDPs arriving from Anbar.
It appears that in the current whirlwind of political and security instability we should expect more and more families to be forced to make difficult choices about whether to leave home and search for relative peace and stability in a different region of Iraq. Providing assistance for the displaced remains one of the lasting challenges for the humanitarian community working in Iraq. NGOs and UN agencies intensify their activities under difficult constraints in Anbar province with no end in sight to the violence. Only when stability improves and access enables aid agencies to carry out more detailed assessments will the extent of the humanitarian crisis emanating from Anbar truly be realized. If this stability is maintained then families will be able to return to their homes and schools can reopen. Any growing pressure on health services in areas hosting a large number of IDPs will also be somewhat relieved. However the Director of Health in Anbar has been working hard to quickly fill any gaps that appear due to an increased population in any area hosting IDPs. In terms of infrastructure damage as a result of the ongoing conflict, significant reparation costs are being projected and houses belonging to local families have been in some cases seriously damaged.
Written by Benjamin Hargreaves, NCCI Communications Team, Jordan