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AMMAN - Worsening violence in western Iraq is driving hundreds of families to flee to neighbouring Jordan and Turkey in what aid officials are calling the biggest flow of refugees from Iraq in recent years.
During the first two weeks of January, 3,000 Iraqis registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Turkey, according to John Young, assistant Representative for UNHCR in Ankara. "This is the largest influx of Iraqis we have seen in three years," he said.
There has also been a sharp increase in the number of refugees reaching Jordan, where the UNHCR registered 1,302 Iraqis in December alone, compared with some 4,200 in the whole of 2012 and an average of 200-250 a month in the first half of 2013.
“We have seen a fivefold increase in Iraqis fleeing to Jordan, and with the security situation in Iraq, we only expect these numbers to continue,” said Andrew Harper, UNHCR Representative in Jordan.
Aid workers say the number of Iraqis fleeing deadly sectarian clashes in Anbar and elsewhere would be even higher but for the many roadblocks placed by government forces and Islamist militants along the main highway linking western Iraq to Jordan.
Despite this, hundreds of Iraqis are arriving in Jordan each day in battered taxis and trucks, braving a 12-hour journey with the attendant risks of kidnapping, hijacking and theft.
"We knew we were risking our lives on the way here,” said 28-year-old Salameh while receiving help at a refugee centre in Amman seven days after arriving from his hometown of Fallujah, which has been besieged by government forces since being overrun by al Qaeda militants last week.
“But there [in Anbar] we would be expecting death every minute, every second.”
“The situation in Anbar is terribly miserable. People are seeking shelter in mosques and schools to escape the shelling,” Salameh said. "There is no electricity, no water, no food. Nowhere left to go but Jordan," he added.
Those who survive the journey to Jordan face an uncertain future, Iraqis and aid officials say.
Having already opened its borders to thousands of Iraqis after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Jordan has recently been burdened by an influx of over one million Syrians, creating a crisis that is straining the resource-poor country’s health, education and water sectors, despite billions of dollars in international donor funding.
With funding drying up for the estimated 29,000 Iraqis who are still in Jordan, relief officials say the kingdom can no longer provide for the new arrivals and is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis.
"In the international community’s mind, the Iraq issue has been forgotten,” said Salaam Kanaan, country director for CARE Jordan, the largest international relief agency that is helping Iraqi refugees in the country. “It has been very difficult to get the international community and donors’ attention in recent years as the Syrian crisis has deepened.”
Funding once earmarked for education and healthcare for Iraqis has been redirected to the growing influx of Syrians, relief officials say, forcing health clinics and aid distribution centres to shut their doors and turn away Iraqis who relied on their services.
“All international funding now goes straight to Syrian families,” said Dr. Khaled Shammas, director of an Iraqi healthcare programme at the Italian Hospital in Amman, which has been forced to cut those receiving its subsidised healthcare services from 25,000 to 14,000 Iraqis because of limited funding.
“More Iraqis are coming each day, but we are helping less and less.”
Iraqi refugees also face fresh legal challenges. The bulk of Iraqis arriving in Jordan are classified as “guests” or “asylum seekers” rather than refugees - a distinction that bars most from obtaining work permits and access to basic services.
Iraqis arriving in Jordan say they find limited access to badly needed humanitarian aid, no work and great difficulty coping with a housing shortage that has seen rents soar more than 300 percent over the past year because of the Syrian influx.
“In one month we have spent the last of our life savings, I can’t find work and we cannot pay rent,” said Abu Hassan, a 50-year-old grocery store owner who fled to Jordan with his family of four in December after a string of bombings near his Baghdad neighbourhood.
“But we will never return [to Iraq].”
Compounding the crisis is the extremist nature of the sectarian violence driving the current exodus from Iraq.
"We have never been so divided like this. Even some names have become dangerous in Iraq," says 32-year-old Omar, who fled Anbar just before the latest assaults started earlier this month.
WHOLE FAMILIES FLEE IRAQ
Relief officials say that unlike previous arrivals, who often maintained homes and businesses and travelled frequently to Iraq during their temporary exile in Jordan, the bulk of the new influx want to settle permanently in the kingdom, having lost their homes and loved ones and abandoned hopes of returning to their homeland because of the complete lack of security and the sectarian divide.
"We have seen a new trend of whole families fleeing to Jordan over the past couple of months," said Kanaan of Care.
"Nowadays in Iraq, death is at the doorstep: kidnapping, shooting, explosions," said Abu Hassan, whose father and two brothers have died during the past decade. "All I have left is my children, and I do not want to lose them."
With violence continuing to escalate in Fallujah and Ramadi and unrest brewing across the country, aid officials and Iraqis say they expect the exodus to grow.
The Displacement and Migration Ministry (MoDM) estimates that the recent violence in western Iraq has internally displaced some 14,000 families, or 50,000 people, who may soon pour across the border to Jordan or Turkey, and U.N. officials have called on the international community to help the two countries cope with the new influx.