Iraq Conference: The voices of uprooted Iraqis set tone for international meeting

The words of the victims of the violence in Iraq conveyed the human tragedy to the delegates at a two-day international conference opened on Tuesday by the UN Refugee Agency more forcefully than statistics.

An Iraqi woman and her child find shelter from the sun inside their tent in a refugee camp for displaced Sunni Muslims in Iraq.   © Reuters/T.Al-Sudani

GENEVA, April 17 (UNHCR) - They were driven from their homes in Iraq, face increasing poverty as refugees or internally displaced and long for the day they can resume normal lives. The words of the victims of the violence in Iraq conveyed the human tragedy to the delegates at a conference opened on Tuesday by the UN Refugee Agency more forcefully than statistics.

"We escaped with our lives and left," says a man now living on a deserted farm in southern Iraq, describing on a short film how the families of five brothers received a written warning ordering them to leave their homes in Baghdad because they were Shiite Muslims. A bullet is still attached to the threatening note he is holding. "Can you believe five families leaving without even their clothes? Some people collected some clothes for us?"

As told repeatedly in the film, those driven from their homes have escaped death but now face dire circumstances as the last of their resources run out. An elderly man, interviewed while lined up to register with his wife at the UN refugee agency in Damascus, describes a woman surgeon selling her belongings, knowing that the alternative is to return to possible death in Baghdad.

The film was shown at the opening of a two-day international conference on the humanitarian needs of nearly 4 million refugees and displaced people in Iraq and surrounding countries that has attracted 450 participants from governments and international and non-governmental organisations. Interviews on one side of the screen - with faces blurred to protect identities - were combined with still photos on the other showing the violence, displaced people and refugees in tents, and children now forced to sleep on floors.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, chairing the conference, called for a sustained, comprehensive and coordinated international response to ease the plight of nearly four million Iraqis uprooted by the conflict. The number of displaced is rising at the rate of 40,000 to 50,000 per month.

"What caused us to leave is the deteriorating security situation in the country. They attempted to assassinate my husband and also the conditions for life for my two young sons are too bad," says a woman interviewed while lining up outside the UNHCR office in Damascus. "We are Sunnis and living in Sunni [Muslim] areas and we are persecuted in Iraq."

The woman, one of up to 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, had arrived in the country three months ago. She was seeking the help of UNHCR, knowing the organisation had provided assistance to others.

"We know that it is an international organisation and provides Iraqis with some security, some assistance and that they might help us with a visa to go some place," she says. "There isn't any country that would receive us without the help of the United Nations."

As the refugees' funds are used up, and their last belongings are sold, they face an increasingly bleak situation. A woman interviewed in a soup kitchen run by the Ibrahim Khalil Church in Damascus, explains that she has come because her family's resources have been exhausted after two years in exile.

"Whatever we brought from Iraq is finished now," she says. "This is why we came to this centre - that they might give us some help and financial aid, to help with the daily expenses because our financial situation is very bad."

The numbers forced to neighbouring countries are too large for permanent integration, while resettlement is a solution only for the most vulnerable of Iraqi refugees. The solution for most Iraqis will be their voluntary return to their homeland - once that can be done safely.

"We left Baghdad because the situation is very difficult. We were threatened with death and they took our houses and also our shops," says a man who arrived in Syria from Iraq with his family three months ago. "I had an antique shop. I had to leave it and leave all of the merchandise behind to save ourselves and the lives of our children."

He is not able to work in Syria and fears what will happen when his savings run out. He wishes he could go home but believes nowhere is safe: "You see what the situation is there - just destruction and death."

"I wish I could return tomorrow or even I would return today if they would provide us with security and our houses. Our whole life is there," he says. But his plans for the future are frozen. "The future is dark and I don't think about it."