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UN: 'Nothing More Important' Than Helping Ramadi Refugees

  • Molly McKitterick

A women who fled Ramadi holds a child in a camp in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, May 22, 2015.

A women who fled Ramadi holds a child in a camp in the town of Amiriyat al-Fallujah, west of Baghdad, Iraq, May 22, 2015.

Since Ramadi fell to Islamic State militants on Sunday, tens of thousands of the city's former residents have been on the road, fleeing the fighting and their homes in the western Anbar Province. Most of them are headed for what they hope is safety in Iraq's capital, Baghdad.

“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. Their suffering is unimaginable,” said Salah Noori, head of programs at the Norwegian Refugee Council [NRC].

In order to get to get to Baghdad, the refugees must pass a checkpoint at the Bzaybiz Bridge in order to cross the Euphrates River. But the bridge has only been open sporadically.

Thousands have gathered on the Anbar side of the bridge in the semi-desert, waiting to cross. The United Nations and other groups have been distributing aid. The NRC says it has handed out water, hygiene kits and food on both sides of the bridge, including to 1,000 people on the Anbar side. But it is nowhere near enough.

"Nothing is more important right now than helping the people fleeing Ramadi," said Lisa Grande, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in the country. "They are in trouble and we need to do everything possible to help them."

Ramadi, Iraq

Ramadi, Iraq

At least five refugees have died from exhaustion in the vicinity of the bridge.

Crisis set to worsen

Iraqi officials blame security concerns for the long waits at the bridge, saying that it takes time to check credentials.

Earlier in the week, they waived restrictions that require persons seeking admittance to Baghdad to have a guarantor - someone in the city to vouch for their identity. The guarantor system is aimed at screening out militants.

The lifting of restrictions was not completely enforced, however, and on Friday the bridge was closed without explanation.

According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 40,000 people fled Ramadi in the past week.

As IS militants advanced to the east of the city Friday, they came within a few kilometers of the town of Khalidiya.

According to NRC's Noori, displaced families from Khalidiya are heading for the bridge.

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