GENEVA - The United Nations refugee agency reports thousands of Iraqis who have fled the bloody takeover of Ramadi by so-called Islamic State militants are stuck at checkpoints in Anbar province and barred from entering the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The UNHCR is appealing to Iraqi authorities to ease restrictions.
The U.N. refugee agency estimates 85,000 people have fled the latest escalation of violence by IS militants in Ramadi since May 15. It says the majority of this latest wave of displaced individuals remains in Anbar governorate, boosting the numbers of homeless people in this area to 180,000.
UNHCR staff in the area report many people on the move face obstacles at various checkpoints out of Anbar into neighboring provinces. It says local authorities in Babylon and Karbala governorates are imposing restrictions and are not allowing displaced people from Anbar to enter their territory.
Spokesman William Spindler said the Bzebiz bridge, the main entry point from Anbar into Baghdad, was closed for four days, leaving many people stranded in soaring temperatures.
“While the bottleneck at the bridge has now eased, our monitoring teams report that the requirement for displaced people to have a local sponsor in Baghdad remains a concern," aid Spindler. "It hampers swift access to safety, leaves people waiting in searing heat without proper shelter and makes the displaced vulnerable to exploitation.”
The government in Baghdad reportedly fears IS militants may be among the crowd of displaced trying to infiltrate the capital. So, as a security measure, it is demanding that a resident of Baghdad sponsor a displaced person, guaranteeing that he or she poses no threat.
In answer to a question, another UNHCR spokesperson, Ariane Rummery, told VOA the agency does not have a mandate to do security screening. That is up to the government. She says, however, that the agency has made some specific suggestions, which could speed up the process.
‘We think, for example, there could be much quicker screening mechanisms," said Rummery. "There could be exceptions for very vulnerable people, perhaps some easing of the onerous requirements.
"UNHCR has had to help some 600 people with serious medical conditions actually get transport back into Anbar to get documentation to prove at the checkpoint that they have medical conditions so that they can go into Baghdad to get treatment.”
The UNHCR says thousands of people unable to move to other provinces are in desperate need of life-saving assistance. It says many of the displaced are living in overcrowded conditions, without access to clean water or proper sanitation.
The UNHCR says daily temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius and warns that displaced people without adequate shelter will incur great risks to their health from the sweltering heat.