One of the major side affects of the on going fighting in Iraq’s Anbar is the huge displacement of people. Iraq still has over 1 million internal refugees from the civil war years. Now several thousand more have been added to that number. Government shelling usually gets mentioned in the press as the main cause of this current exodus, but there are other factors as well. More importantly there is the question of what’s in the future for these people. Will they be able to eventually return to their homes or will the lack of security preclude that for the foreseeable future? Anbar may be leading Iraq into a new phase in its long-standing refugee problem.
The numbers for the amount of people that have fled Anbar has steadily increased since fighting started in the province at the very end of December 2013. Some of the earliest figures emerged in the first week of January. January 5, 2014 Buratha News reported that 400 families had fled Fallujah due to the violence. That same day a member of the provincial council told Al-Mada that 3,000 people had been displaced from Fallujah and the neighboring town of Amiryat Fallujah. January 8, the United Nations said that 5,000 families had left Anbar for Karbala, Salahaddin, Baghdad and elsewhere, while the Ministry of Displacement and Migration and NGOs had the number as high as 9,000 families. That would be roughly 25,000-45,000 people. The International Organization for Migration noted that there were up to 13,000 people in Kurdistan alone. January 9, the Iraqi Red Crescent claimed that 13,000 families had been displaced, which was quite a jump from previous estimates. January 16, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put that number at 70,000 individuals, doubling some of the previous figures from just eight days before. By January 24 the United Nations had 140,000 displaced with 65,000 in just the previous week. Finally, on January 27 the Red Crescent was quoted as saying over 34,000 families had fled since the beginning of the conflict. These people have not just come from Fallujah and Ramadi, but Khalidiya, Jazeera, Husayba al-Sharqiya, Albu Bali, and other towns. Given the fluid situation in Anbar right now it is probably impossible to determine the actual number of internal refugees. Different groups have come up with varying figures, but they have all consistently gone up. This might have missed the changing nature of the conflict however. On January 9 and 10 for instance there were several news stories that hundreds of families had returned to Fallujah during a lull in the fighting. A member of the provincial council gave the amount as around 2,000 families. Whatever the exact amount and the ebb and flow of the movement there is definitely a massive migration going on in Anbar.
Images of Fallujans leaving their homes Jan. 9, 2014 (Ali al-Sadi, AFP)
The causes of this great movement are many. The Iraqi military has been using both targeted and indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire on several cities and towns in Anbar since the fighting started. This is constantly mentioned in news reports as the major cause for people fleeing. There appear to be many other reasons as well, but they have only been mentioned in passing. January 4 Agence France Presse talked to some Fallujans who said they were leaving to escape what they expected to be a major battle between insurgents and the security forces. Many services and shops have been shut down as well in cities like Ramadi and Fallujah making it difficult to stay there. One displaced boy told Radio Free Iraq that gunmen had seized his home. Finally, AIN reported that mosques in the Askari and Shuhada neighborhoods of eastern Fallujah were urging people to leave their homes over their loudspeakers to avoid an impending military crackdown on the city. Shelling alone cannot explain the massive dislocation that is on going. The government has fired onto several cities, but they usually target the same neighborhoods each time. A combination of a lack of food, electricity and fuel, fighting between the insurgents and tribes and the security forces, fears that the Iraqi army may launch an assault on Fallujah, along with the artillery and mortars are a more likely explanation for the continued displacement.
Aid agencies have warned that Iraq is going through the greatest refugee crisis since the civil war years. Thousands of people have left their homes in Anbar because of the fighting. The issue at hand is where will these people go. In early January some were making a return to their homes when it appeared that the situation had calmed down, but it didn’t and more left afterward. Will a level of stability return to Anbar so that people can go back permanently or will there be continued fighting in the governorate that will keep families away for the long term? If it is the latter then this is another sign that Iraq is deteriorating. Over one million people have never returned to their place of origin since 2006. Several thousand could be added to that amount if the problems in Anbar aren’t resolved.
Agence France Presse, “Iraqis return to Fallujah as UN backs fight with extremists,” 1/10/14
- “Many residents of Iraq city of Fallujah, flee, fearing major battle,” 1/4/14
AIN, “Preachers via Mosques’ loudspeakers call citizens to evacuate residences in Fallujah,” 1/18/14
BBC, “Residents flee occupied Fallujah amid army bombardment,” 1/5/14
Hussein, Ferial, “Four thousand families left their homes on the outskirts of the city of Ramadi,” Radio Free Iraq, 1/14/14
IRIN, “Iraq fighting slows aid to the displaced,” 1/8/14
- “Iraqi IPDs from Fallujah fighting flock north,” 1/16/14
Jawad, Haider Ali, “Anbar..Maliki issued an amnesty for wanted..And half of the Albu Alwan tribe organized into Awakening..Al Qaeda seized money from banks,” Buratha News 1/5/14
Latif, Ali, “Refugee exodus continues as al-Qaeda militants solidify positions in Falluja,” Azzaman, 1/10/14
Al-Mada, “75% of the residents of Fallujah have left..Intervention and assistance through unofficial outlets,” 1/25/14
- Cautious calm in Fallujah and negotiations for the appointment of the police chief..The call for 13 thousand displaced families,” 1/9/14
- “Fallujah provisional council confirms the return of more than 2,000 families to their homes and accuse the army to prevent the introduction of fuel and goods to the city,” 1/9/14
- “Fallujah residents content themselves with one meal for fear of running out of food and thousands displaced,” 1/5/14
- “Month on the Anbar Operations: 650 killed and injured…140 thousand displaced people,” 1/27/14
National Iraqi News Agency, “Breaking News..The Displacement of Dozens of Families in Fallujah as a Result of Shelling,” 1/16/14
- “Displacement of Hundreds of Families Continued in Fallujah as a result of shelling,” 1/21/14
- “The exodus of families continue form eastern areas of Ramadi,” 1/25/14
- “mortar shelling resumed in east and south areas in Fallujah,” 1/19/14
New Sabah, “Ending the armed manifestations Fallujah decided at a meeting today of Anbar,” 1/10/14
Sarhan, Abbas, “sleeping at the enemy’s: sunni refugees from anbar sheltered by shiites in karbala,” Niqash, 1/16/14
UN Assistant Mission In Iraq, “The United Nations Engages in Assisting the Population of Anbar Province,” 1/8/14
Yacoub, Sameer, “UN: More than 140,000 Iraqis flee Anbar violence,” Associated Press, 1/24/14