United Arab Emirates donates US$10 million to UNHCR for Iraq projects

The president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, has donated US$10 million to the UN refugee agency for its programmes aimed at helping Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Trucks with aid from the United Arab Emirates being unloaded. The UAE has donated US$10 million to UNHCR for its Iraq crisis programmes.   © UNHCR/J.Wreford

GENEVA, October 2 (UNHCR) - The president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, has donated US$10 million to the UN refugee agency for its programmes aimed at helping Iraqi refugees in Syria.

"We thank the president and the people of the United Arab Emirates for this timely contribution, evidence of our enhanced humanitarian partnership and of humanitarian solidarity within the region," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

She said the money would help ease the suffering of Iraqi refugees and alleviate some of the burden being shouldered by host countries such as Syria, which is sheltering more than 1.4 million Iraqis who have fled violence in their country.

High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is sending a message of thanks and appreciation to Sheikh Khalifa in recognition of the US$10 million donation, the largest to UNHCR from the United Arab Emirates since the Middle Eastern federation started contributing to the agency in 1980. The contribution is equal to all contributions from the region to UNHCR over the past ten years.

UNHCR has to date appealed for a total of US$223 million for the Iraqi humanitarian crisis, including a US$129 million joint appeal with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) aimed at getting 150,000 Iraqi refugee children back to school in neighbouring countries.

In the region, meanwhile, UNHCR staff on Monday reported that the Iraq-Syria border crossing at Al Tanf was largely deserted, in sharp contrast to the day before when the same team had seen large numbers of Iraqis crossing into Syria. Iraqi commercial truck drivers - the only ones who had reportedly received visas - were still passing through yesterday.

"While we have not had any formal notification by the Syrian authorities, we believe this might well indicate that Syria has again started to impose visa restrictions on Iraqis wishing to enter Syria," Pagonis said.

Last month, Syria announced its intention to impose visa restrictions, declaring it had received more than 1.4 million Iraqis and was now at the breaking point. With the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, however, the visa restrictions were temporarily postponed. It now appears they have been reimposed.

A closure of the border would effectively mean that Iraqis fleeing their country would lose their only remaining safe haven. Pagonis said the UNHCR team in Syria was still discussing with the government a proposal for the introduction of a special humanitarian visa, which would allow those most in need to still enter the country for urgent humanitarian reasons.

There are more than 4.4 million uprooted Iraqis and they continue to flee at the rate of some 60,000 a month. More than 2.2 million of them are displaced inside the country, with some 800,900 people living in the northern governorates, 740,500 in the centre and 714,600 living in the south of Iraq. Another 2.2 million Iraqis have fled the country - the majority of them to Syria.

The Iraqis in Syria now constitute about 10 percent of the total population and put an enormous strain on the country. UNHCR has been calling for increased support for countries like Syria and Jordan - who jointly host more than 2 million refugees.

During the first six months of 2007, an estimated 19,800 Iraqis asked for asylum in industrialized countries outside the region. At the same time, UNHCR referred the files of more than 14,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis to resettlement countries for their consideration. By the end of September, some 1,800 of these Iraqis had departed to various resettlement countries.