Iraq: Rate of displacement rising

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The humanitarian situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate with the number of displaced Iraqis, both inside and outside the country, rising. Now, an estimated 4.2 million Iraqis are have been uprooted from their homes, with the monthly rate of displacement climbing to over 60,000 people compared to 50,000 previously, according to UNHCR and the Iraqi Red Crescent. Displacement is rising as Iraqis are finding it harder to get access to social services inside Iraq and many Iraqis are choosing to leave ethnically mixed areas before they are forced to do so. Some Iraqis who stayed in the country until the end of the school year recently started leaving the country with their families.

More than 2 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq, with over 1 million displaced since the February 2006 Samarra bombings. While most of the security incidents happen in the centre and south of the country, the displaced are not confined to these regions. In the north, there are more than 780,000 displaced Iraqis, over 650,000 in the centre of the country, and 790,000 in the south. Many are barely surviving in makeshift camps, inaccessible to aid workers for security reasons.

Syria, which has generously kept its borders open to fleeing Iraqis, estimates that more than 1.4 million Iraqis are now in the country. Jordan estimates that some 500,000-750,000 Iraqis are in the country. The number of Iraqi asylum seekers in Europe in the first half of 2007 rose to nearly 20,000 - the same number received during all of 2006.

With over 300 staff working on the Iraq operation, UNHCR has now registered more than 170,000 refugees in the countries neighbouring Iraq, 15 percent of whom need special assistance including many very traumatised people and torture victims. Since the start of this year, we have referred over 13,200 of the most vulnerable Iraqi cases to resettlement countries, including 9,888 cases to the US, and 3,344 cases to Australia, Canada, UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Brazil. So far only several hundred cases have left for life in a third country. We urge the resettlement countries to make rapid decisions and facilitate the departure of those most in need, many of whom are urgent medical cases, single female headed households, torture victims and others. Resettlement, however, remains an option for only a few of the most vulnerable Iraqis. Our goal is to provide up to 20,000 Iraqi resettlement cases to governments this year.

In Jordan last week, the new school year started with Jordan opening its state schools to an additional 50,000 Iraqi children. UNHCR has welcomed this generous move by the Jordanians and is doing all it can to support Jordan and Syria which are facing additional pressure on the education system, by building and rehabilitating schools, providing transport, school material and salaries for additional teachers and setting up double shift systems in the schools. In June, UNHCR's team in Syria launched a "Back to School" campaign to encourage as many Iraqi children as possible to register for the new academic school year. School in Syria will start again mid-September.

Many Iraqi refugee children have not yet registered for different reasons. Some are too traumatised from their experiences in Iraq to even attend school; some simply trying to survive or care for other family members; some parents - illegally in the country - are afraid of being discovered. UNHCR and its partners are trying to provide as much support and trauma counselling as they can, but the number of affected people outstrips the resources we can currently provide.

Inside Iraq, UNHCR and its partners are trying to do as much as possible to help the displaced, even though security conditions make this difficult. We are providing emergency assistance to the most needy, visiting the accessible displacement sites or makeshift camps, providing non-food items and emergency shelter.

Along the Iraq-Syria border, the situation remains desperate for more than 1,600 Palestinians stranded in two camp sites, Al Tanf and Al Waleed. There are some 15,000 Palestinians remaining in Iraq who are being threatened, killed or kidnapped on a daily basis and - unlike the Iraqis - cannot flee to friendly communities inside Iraq nor to neighbouring countries. Recently - thankfully - Syria and Norway took four of the most urgent medical cases and their families from the border camps for whom we had asked urgent medical evacuation. There are still several sick Palestinians - especially children - who need to urgently leave the insecure and unhealthy border area, where temperatures have recently climbed to 50 degrees C.

We stress again the urgent need to find a humanitarian solution for this group of refugees.

UNHCR has appealed for $223 million for the Iraq humanitarian crisis. The first appeal of $123 million has been funded by 75 percent. But the second $129 million joint education appeal with UNICEF aimed at getting an additional 150,000 Iraqi refugee children back to schools in neighbouring countries, has still not been funded, although we have good indications funds will be coming.

We continue to appeal for more support and also encourage donors to provide direct bilateral support to the refugee hosting countries whose schools, hospitals, public services and infrastructure are seriously overstretched because of the presence of millions of Iraqis they have so generously welcomed.