Syria and Jordan still wait for help despite pledges made at Iraq meeting

The UN refugee agency Friday made a fresh call on donors to help countries hosting hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and said Syria and Jordan were still waiting for help despite expressions of support made during a major international conference on Iraq in April.

Iraqis line up to register at a UNHCR centre in Syria. More than 12,000 of the over 57,000 Iraqis registered by the agency in Syria since the beginning of this year were victims of torture.   © UNHCR/R.Awabdeh

GENEVA, July 6 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency made a fresh call Friday on donors to help countries hosting hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and said Syria and Jordan were still waiting for help despite expressions of support made during a major international conference on Iraq in April.

"It is unconscionable that generous host countries be left on their own to deal with such a huge crisis. We strongly urge governments to step forward now to support them in dealing with this situation and renew our call for international solidarity and burden-sharing," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva on Friday.

Main host countries Syria and Jordan, with an estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees between them, are struggling to cope. Syria continues to receive about 2,000 Iraqis a day, and about 30,000 a month end up staying.

"The growing refugee population and the communities that host them are facing enormous hardships that will only get worse if the international community doesn't put its money where its mouth is," Redmond said.

At April's UNHCR-organized conference, the UN refugee agency told the more than 400 delegates from governments and international and non-governmental organizations that its US$60 million programme for Iraqi refugees and displaced was just a drop in the ocean compared to the huge needs in the region.

While contributions to UNHCR have been generous, now totalling some $70 million with another $10 million pledged or in the pipeline, the organization has said it cannot do everything alone.

"We stressed then - and we say it again - donors must provide direct bilateral support to these host countries whose schools, hospitals, public services and infrastructure are seriously overstretched because of the presence of millions of Iraqis they have so generously welcomed," Redmond said.

In Syria, for example, only 32,000 of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugee children in the country are actually in school. Syria, with 1.4 million Iraqis, is the only country in the region that allows free public school access for all Iraqi children. But there is not enough space to take them all in.

To try to cope, Syrian education officials have been forced to convert scores of public schools back to the double-shift system, which the country had planned to end by 2010. A whole generation of Iraqi children is in danger of missing out on an education.

UNHCR is working with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to have at least 150,000 Iraqi children in school in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon by the end of this year. But the task of providing more classrooms, teachers, educational materials and other support must be done in coordination with the Syrian education ministry - and it is not getting the help it needs.

The health infrastructure is also under severe strain and thousands of Iraqis are suffering because they cannot get proper help. "Every week, we're seeing sick and maimed Iraqis - including many burn and trauma victims - arriving in Syria in search of medical help," Redmond said, adding that UNHCR had set up three primary care medical posts and was building two more.

"But it's not enough. We're currently referring 10,000 Iraqis a month to Syrian doctors and health care facilities, including 3,000 to hospitals. About 15 percent of those 3,000 are in urgent need of serious medical help," he added.

In the last month alone, UNHCR has provided prostheses to 50 Iraqi children. Meanwhile, more than 12,000 of the more than 57,000 Iraqis registered by the agency in Syria since the beginning of this year were victims of torture. "You can imagine the needs," Redmond noted.