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Ramadi Refugees Face Desperate Humanitarian Situation As They Wait To Cross Into Baghdad


Displaced Iraqis who were forced to flee their hometowns ahead of gains made by Islamic State (IS) militants in Ramadi wait near the Bzaybiz bridge crossing the Euphrates River on their way to Baghdad, May 16, 2015

Displaced Iraqis who were forced to flee their hometowns ahead of gains made by Islamic State (IS) militants in Ramadi wait near the Bzaybiz bridge crossing the Euphrates River on their way to Baghdad, May 16, 2015

The thousands of Iraqis fleeing to Baghdad in the wake of the Islamic State (IS) group's capture of Ramadi, west of the capital, are facing an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.

Since Ramadi fell on May 17, more than 40,000 residents of Anbar Province have fled, first to Khalidiya and then to the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah.

More than 8,000 families have amassed in Amiriyat al-Fallujah at the access point to the Bzaybiz bridge that links Anbar to the Iraqi capital, says RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq's Anbar correspondent Ra'ad al-Khashea.

But relief aid provided for the migrants has so far proved inadequate.

Forced to wait in a semidesert environment in the blistering summer heat, the migrants do not have enough drinking water, and some of the tents brought to shelter them are falling to pieces.

The Bzaybiz bridge has only opened at limited times to allow displaced persons to cross from Anbar into Baghdad.

The bridge was closed on May 22, leaving displaced persons stranded in a sandstorm on the Anbar side, with no shelter. The reason for the closure is as yet unknown.

The lack of aid and the long waiting times without shelter have already led to a number of deaths among the displaced persons.

Khashea said that five migrants died on the morning of May 20. "One of the deceased had been hit by shrapnel and died as a result of the absence of health care," Khashea added.

First Deputy Baghdad Governor Jassim al-Bkhati said that the authorities were doing their utmost to help the those who had been displaced.

Bkhati said that the Baghdad authorities were working with groups including the UN and the Norwegian Refugee Council, and had been able to provide food and other aid.

A woman who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi carries her child on the outskirts of Baghdad on May 19.

A woman who fled the violence in the city of Ramadi carries her child on the outskirts of Baghdad on May 19.

Aid agencies say that they have managed to provide some assistance, but that much more is required.

"People are telling us that they have been walking for three or four days in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius to get to safety. They are exhausted and dehydrated. Many are sleeping out in the open," says Salah Noori, the head of programs at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which has been handing out water, food and hygiene kits to families on both sides of the crossing at the Bzaybiz bridge.

"We urgently need to get more aid into Anbar," Noori said.

A spokeswoman for the NRC told RFE/RL late on May 22 that some aid had managed to get through and that the council had been able to distribute aid to some 1,000 families waiting on the Anbar side of the bridge.

Sattar Nowrooz of the Migration and Displaced Persons Ministry told RFE/RL on May 20 that his ministry had sent 15 truckloads of aid to the displaced persons waiting to cross the Bzaybiz bridge, with another 15 or 20 truckloads expected to be delivered between May 21 and 22. It's not clear whether those additional truckloads of aid have been delivered.

Sponsor System

Iraqi officials have blamed security concerns for the long waiting times for displaced Anbar residents wishing to cross the Bzaybiz bridge.

The authorities in Baghdad fear that IS militants could take advantage of the crisis to mingle with the crowds of displaced persons and infiltrate into the Iraqi capital.

In an attempt to address this problem, the authorities have put in place a guarantor system, according to which displaced persons must have a resident of Baghdad act as their sponsor before they are allowed into the city.

The guarantor system is intended to "curtail bloodshed and to safeguard people's lives," Deputy Baghdad Governor Bkhati said.

A family who fled the city of Ramadi gather inside their tent at a camp for the internally displaced in Amriyat al-Fallujah on May 22.

A family who fled the city of Ramadi gather inside their tent at a camp for the internally displaced in Amriyat al-Fallujah on May 22.

The current situation regarding the guarantor system is unclear. Although the authorities announced on May 19 that they would open the crossing for some Anbar migrants without the need for a guarantor, that decision appears not to have been fully implemented, according to RFE/RL's Khashea.

Though security officials have started allowing some displaced persons who have documented cases of chronic illness into Baghdad to receive proper care, they still require other migrants to have a sponsor in order to enter the capital.

"The new twist, however, is that a would-be sponsor now has to travel to Amiriyat al-Fallujah to fetch the family being sponsored, but many are afraid to make the trip," Khashea said.

Meanwhile, some migrants report that they have had difficulties in finding a guarantor in Baghdad, and that some residents of the capital are demanding money to act as such.

The situation has caused anger among those displaced Anbar residents waiting to cross the Bzaybiz bridge. Some have expressed dismay toward local and central governments and security authorities, as well as to tribal elders and religious scholars, whom they feel have abandoned them to the desert, Khashea said.

There have also been reports of fights breaking out on the bridge between Anbar migrants and Iraqi security personnel.

"Very important is the fact that not being allowed into their own capital city has eroded any patriotic allegiance and the feeling of nationhood and belonging as expressed by the Iraqi Constitution," Khashea added.

Deputy Governor Bkhati insisted that the displaced persons from Anbar are "Iraqis and our brothers."

"Baghdad is their capital," Bkhati said. "But we are today facing a security problem that requires scrutiny of those coming from Anbar in order to verify their credentials and their vetting by a Baghdad resident."

Meanwhile, the head of Anbar's provincial council, Sabah Karhut, called on the central government to reopen the bridge on May 22, saying that "thousands of families" were still waiting to cross it into the Iraqi capital.

And the humanitarian crisis in Anbar is set to get worse, aid agencies say.

IS militants on May 22 advanced to within 5 kilometers of the town of Khalidiya east of Ramadi and next to the Habbaniya military base where Iraqi security forces and members of the Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Units militia are gathering.

NRC's program director in Baghdad, Salah Noori, told RFE/RL that the aid agency is expecting a new humanitarian crisis, with some 3,000 displaced families heading to the Bzaybiz bridge from Khalidiya.

"So far, we have dozens of hundreds at the bridge, that is closed now. The vast majority of them stay in the open with very limited access to water and food," Noori said, adding that the NRC planned to send 2,000 food parcels, 2,000 hygiene kits and 4,000 water packs to aid the displaced persons on May 23.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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