The UN is warning of a “critical humanitarian situation” that is only “likely to worsen” following sustained fighting among Islamic insurgents, tribal groups and government forces in the Iraqi province of Anbar that has displaced at least 5,000 families.
Aid agencies are on standby to deliver food, water and other relief items to those affected by the violence, which erupted in and around the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, but they are struggling to gain access due to the fighting.
Militants seized the two cities at the start of the year following a government raid on a protest camp in Ramadi - 100km west of Baghdad. Anbar, Iraq’s largest province, was at the heart of the 2003 insurgency in opposition to the US occupation.
“The situation in Fallujah is particularly concerning as existing stocks of food, water and life-saving medicines begin to run out,” Nickolay Mladenov, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq (SRSG), said in a statement issued in Baghdad on Wednesday.
He stressed the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) was “working closely with the Iraqi national and regional authorities as well as with humanitarian partners to ensure safe passage for humanitarian assistance and emergency supplies” to those who had been affected.
Mladenov’s spokesperson, Eliana Nabaa, director of UNAMI’s public information office, told IRIN that the difficult security situation was making it hard to deliver support to the displaced families and that this week some trucks packed with emergency supplies had to turn back.
According to Pawel Krzysiek, the spokesman for the Baghdad delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), conditions are becoming increasingly difficult.
“A large number of civilians remain trapped in these cities or have been forced to flee, and the humanitarian situation in these areas worsens day by day,” he told IRIN.
“We have been receiving information that, especially in Fallujah, food and fuel supplies were running short. Provision of food will likely be a major concern in the near future and, similarly, frequent electricity cuts and lack of medical supplies could soon hinder the provision of appropriate care in health facilities.
”The full scale of this latest displacement is unclear. Estimates from the Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM), the UN and NGOs range from 5,000 to 9,000 families, equivalent to between 25,000 and 45,000 people based on an average family of five people.
"It is hard to know exact numbers for displacements within Anbar since the start of the year because the situation is very fluid and changing all the time,” explained Diana Al Moulla, Iraq national information management officer for the International Organization of Migration (IOM).
“We are working on collecting as much new information as possible as quickly as we can so we can work out our best response,” she added. The violence that erupted in Fallujah and Ramadi comes on the back of a bloody 2013 for Iraq, which saw close to 8,000 civilian deaths - the highest recorded for over five years.
Al Moulla said the deteriorating security situation over the past 18 months had led to “significant waves of displacements” across the country, but she explained that while the displacements in Anbar over the last 18 months had mostly been due to specific threats of violence against individual families along sectarian lines, now many more people were leaving from fears of the continuous violence.
“In the case of these most recent developments in Anbar Province since the start of January, we understand people are moving now because of the continuous fighting and in fear for their lives, as well as the lack of basic needs and services like electricity, heating and basic commodities,” she said.
During a briefing in Geneva this week, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson said the agency was ready to provide relief items such blankets, kitchen sets and sleeping mats to people displaced due to the latest violence in Fallujah and Ramadi.
“The biggest challenge we have at the moment is the security situation, which is very complicated, but we are working with all the UN agencies to ensure we can respond to the displaced families as quickly as possible,” Liene Viede, a UNHCR information officer in Iraq, said.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is also on standby, but, like other agencies, it is waiting on security clearance to be able to deliver to those in need.
Jane Pearce, WFP representative and country director, told IRIN that it was very likely the government food ration system would have been disrupted by the fighting in Anbar, and that there were concerns about getting supplies to people who had been cut off or displaced from their communities.
“Anbar is still very much a conflict situation, and it’s very hard for us to get a full sense of how many people have been affected,” she said.
“What we understand is that there have been quite significant displacements, and if that is the case, we need to find ways to get food support to people until they can reconnect with the centralized government system again,” she told IRIN.
“We are preparing just now to see what will be needed, and we are looking upstream to our supply pipeline to ensure we are ready to move. We have stockpiles of supplies here in Iraq that are ready for rapid distribution, such as basic emergency items like fortified biscuits and family food parcels,” she added.
Echoing other UN staff in Baghdad, Pearce said: “Security conditions have to permit assessments to take place. Once we have clearance, we can turn supplies around very quickly.”
The ongoing tensions in Fallujah and Ramadi have also been blamed for a hike in Iraqi refugees crossing the border into neighbouring Jordan, which is already under strain from hosting more than 600,000 Syrian refugees.
Earlier this month, UNHCR representative country Andrew Harper tweeted that an average of 415 Iraqis a week had registered for refugee status there during December.According to the latest figures from IOM, 13,000 individual IDPs from Anbar have reached northern Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
The majority are in the capital Erbil, staying in hotels, rented houses or with families, IRIN was told. IOM said they are working with UNHCR and the local government to construct a new camp in the Erbil area to specifically accommodate IDPs from Anbar.
WFP and other NGOs were also on board to respond to food, water and sanitation needs, while IOM said it would be erecting 325 tents and distributing other non-food item packages.