Syrian refugee camp trapped in Iraqi territory controlled by insurgents

BAGHDAD—A director of the Al Obaidi camp for Syrian refugees in Iraq recently gathered his staff together and offered them a solemn choice.

“ISIS is about to take over,” he warned the few dozen remaining workers as Sunni extremists from the Islamic State approached in early July. The insurgents, who had already taken over large parts of Syria, were in the process of swallowing up nearly a quarter of Iraq.

“We don’t know our fate,” said the director, who gave only his last name, Mr. Kamil. “So you’re all free to stay or to go.”

Most of the workers decided to remain at the remote camp on Iraq’s western border with Syria and tend to more than 1,000 Syrian refugees who have been stranded there since the site was established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2012.

A few hours later, Islamic State fighters swept through the area and have controlled the region ever since. UNHCR employees say they haven’t visited the camp since June, leaving local organizations to operate what is essentially a phantom outpost for Syrian refugees. With little access to the outside world, UNHCR officials worry that food, medical equipment and fuel will soon run dangerously low.

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The exiles ended up caught between two overlapping conflicts—a scenario that is emblematic of the challenge human-rights workers face as they struggle to contain the worst global refugee crisis in recent memory.

“We are witnessing a multiplication of new crises everywhere. At the same time, old crises never die,” António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said at a news conference in Baghdad in July.

There are now 51.3 million people displaced both inside and outside their countries of origin—more than at any time since World War II, said Mr. Guterres. Global conflicts are metastasizing, flooding overburdened facilities with still more refugees, he added.

In 2011, 14,000 people were forced to flee their homes each day world-wide. That number rose to 23,000 in 2013 and has reached 32,000 a day in 2014, he said. Two-thirds of the world’s refugees are Muslims, he said.

“This is a series of quantum leaps” that have pushed global relief organizations to their limits, said Mr. Guterres. “I think it’s time to say that we can no longer clean up the mess. The humanitarian community can no longer respond.”

More than a million people have been displaced in Iraq since June, when the Islamic State began its sweep through parts of the country.

U.N. officials say as many as 1,200 Syrian refugees still live at the Al Obaidi camp, in addition to some 3,000 more who are thought to live as guests of residents in the nearby town of Al Qaim. No one from UNHCR nor their partners from the World Food Program, the International Rescue Committee or the U.N. Children’s Fund have been able to reach the camp since June.

UNHCR hasn’t attempted to send more supplies to the camp out of fear that Islamic State militants might take them or demand a tariff, which would put the organization in the awkward position of having to make payments directly to an international terrorist organization.

Despite such concerns, Mr. Kamil said the camp still has plenty of supplies. He and UNHCR are also working to source much-needed goods locally using money wired in from Baghdad.

But that does little to ease anxiety among human-rights workers in Baghdad about what will happen when supplies do start to run low. Many of the roadways between Baghdad and Al Qaim are blocked and once supplies are sent, there is little that UNHCR officials can do to ensure they reach their intended destination.

All information about the camp’s structure comes from Mr. Kamil, who runs the sprawling facility on behalf of the Iraqi Salvation Humanitarian Organization, a Baghdad-based nongovernmental organization.

“All of the organizations left the camp for fear of their own lives. They didn’t care about us,” said one 55-year-old Syrian refugee resident who gave her name only as Jouria. “I swear to God, if the Iraqi Salvation Humanitarian Organization weren’t here, we would be dead and our children would have died of hunger.”

A few hours after the staff made the anguished decision to remain at the camp, about 15 Islamic State fighters pulled up in two trucks.

Mr. Kamil strained to show a brave face. But he was terrified.

For months, Iraqis had heard horrific reports of Islamic State fighters massacres of religious minorities, beheadings and medieval-style punishments. Fortunately for them, the camp’s refugees and its surrounding population are almost all Sunni Muslims like the insurgents themselves—a population that the Islamic State tends to spare.

The men sported long beards and wore baggy clothing, said the camp manager. But instead of threatening or barking orders, Mr. Kamil was relieved when they asked if the camp’s staff needed any assistance or extra supplies. He told his heavily armed visitors that the camp was well-stocked with food and fuel. There was even enough cash to pay the refugees so they could buy food on their own—a necessity since the World Food Program staff had fled the previous month.

The militants asked for a tour and Mr. Kamil walked them among the tents and showed them around the camp’s bakery.

“They even asked us what kind of makeup we use!” said Um Abdullah, 35, another camp resident who watched the tour.

After a few hours, the men left, said Mr. Kamil. But they returned a few days later to demand that all the refugees accompany them to a local mosque, said Jouria. In a 20-minute lecture, the Islamic State fighters instructed the women to dress modestly in a face-covering veil and not to wander out without a male relative.

“They said they came here for us, to liberate the region,” said Jouria. “We were so frightened, no one said a single word. We just signaled our agreement.”

Mr. Kamil said they haven’t heard from the insurgents since.