Iraq’s displaced, a ticking time bomb
Baghdad - It took three days for a doctoral candidate at Anbar University and 13 of his family members to trek 110 kilometres from their home in the eastern Iraq city of Ramadi to escape rampaging militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) and reach Baghdad, a safe haven of sorts.
“There were no taxis and thousands of people had to walk every inch of what takes two hours by car,” the graduate student told The Arab Weekly, speaking on condition of anonymity because relatives remain within ISIS territory.
“We had to sleep on the ground and all the way we had to put up with politicians accusing us on social media of collaborating with ISIS if we stayed in Ramadi or being terrorist sleeper cells if we made it to Baghdad.”
The student complained that, despite the accusations, those displaced from Anbar province, where ISIS has seized a large area, have “become a source of profit for a lot of people”.
For instance, his family rented a one-bedroom apartment in Baghdad but the owner charged a gouging 1.5 million dinars ($1,300) a month, way above the normal rate.
The student is part of a growing crisis in war-torn Iraq with the displaced prey to countrymen who see only profit in misery. One out of every ten Iraqis — 2.7 million people — has become an internally displaced person (IDP) with little access to humanitarian assistance.
This growing multitude of savagely uprooted civilians, which emerged during a surge of violence in January 2014, has joined the ranks of some 1 million Iraqis displaced in earlier waves of conflict over the past decade, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says.
For now, the most troubling aspect is the fate of 400,000 displaced in Anbar, the largest of Iraq’s 18 provinces, where civilians fleeing ongoing fighting in Ramadi, the provincial capital, face numerous challenges — dwindling resources, military checkpoints where they are vulnerable to extortion or worse, entry restrictions (no one can get into Baghdad without sponsors) and predatory armed groups every mile of the way, relief workers say.
In the last two weeks of April, an estimated 114,000 Iraqis fled Ramadi as fighting between the Iraqi Army and ISIS raged, UNHCR statistics indicate. Of these, about 39,000 remain trapped within the predominantly Sunni province.
It is said that Anbar’s IDPs were seeking shelter wherever they could find it in relatively quieter areas such as Khalidiya, Habbaniyah and Amriyat al-Fallujah.
Although Iraq has been ravaged by wars and insurrection for 35 years, there was no authority for refugees and IDPs until 2003 when the Ministry of Migration and Displacement was established following the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Even so, Iraqi authorities are clearly unable to handle the mushrooming IDP crisis. They say the Baghdad government does not have the funds or the organisation to be of help. That may have something to do with the fact that the government is dominated by Shia Muslims and most of the refugees are members of the minority Sunni sect.
At the outset of the crisis in June 2014, when ISIS took control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest urban centre, the Baghdad government allocated $200 million to a committee to aid the displaced, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.
He announced in April that $48.8 million had been spent on aiding some 900,000 Iraqi IDPs. But it did not seem to make much of a dent in the humanitarian crisis
“My husband and I sold everything we had to repair our roof to protect our children from the rain and the cold,” said a mother of five about her family home in Tal Afar, near Baghdad, who is now living in a mosque in Karbala, south of the capital, with ten other families.
“We were forced out of our home by ISIS on the night it occupied Tal Afar on June 10, 2014,” she lamented. The woman, speaking on condition of anonymity because she fears for the safety of her family, told The Arab Weekly that people and the local government in Karbala have been providing her family with relief aid.
But relief workers in the city say that the rapidly growing number of IDPs is “beyond control” after the latest wave from Anbar.
Ahmad Agha, 23, who runs Ghawth, an independent relief group of Iraqi youth raising funds and operating across the country, told The Arab Weekly, “Most of the IDPs walked for 110 kilometres from Ramadi to Baghdad with nothing but the clothes on their backs.”
He said that while international relief organisations operate in the field, “We need Iraqi hands and money to help the IDPs.”
Ali Bayati, founder of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation, said there are about 400,000 displaced Turkmen, Iraq’s third largest ethnic group, whose plight is largely neglected.
“We’re helping the Turkmen but we need to do much more,” he told The Arab Weekly. He described the conditions under which the displaced are forced to live as “very tragic and sad”. He alleged there’s “corruption” in international agencies operating in northern Iraq which means insufficient funds are reaching the needy.
Faten Sarraf, an Iraqi engineer living in Dubai, raises funds for IDPs in the Arbat camp in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah which she visited in February. She described the conditions there as “beyond imagination”.
“The situation was terrible,” she told The Arab Weekly. “People are living in tents on the cold ground. They have little milk to feed their babies. There’s no medicine to treat the elderly who’re suffering from flu and high fever.”
In one week, she said, the camp population swelled by another 900 families. Teba Tariq, a displaced teacher working with schoolgirls sheltering in Erbil, asked her students to “write letters to a world that might hear their voices”.
She said that two out of every three girls fear that “their situation will deteriorate” and expressed concern about family members left behind, homesickness and a crippling sense of alienation.