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UNHCR signs landmark accord in Syria with international NGO

News Stories, 8 May 2008

© UNHCR/H.Mukhtar
Hussein Ibrahim, country director for IMC, UNHCR Executive Committee Chairman Boudewijn van Eenennaam and Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's deputy representative in Syria.

DAMASCUS, Syria, May 8 (UNHCR) Boudewijn van Eenennaam, head of the UN refugee agency's governing body, on Thursday attended the signing of a landmark contract between UNHCR and the International Medical Corps (IMC), paving the way for the aid agency to become the first international non-governmental organization (INGO) to work with Iraqi refugees in Syria.

IMC will run three health clinics for refugees in Damascus under the agreement. The Danish Refugee Council and Premier Urgence are also slated to start work in Syria soon in support of UNHCR community services and education programmes.

"This is a very significant step in addressing the increasing needs of this very vulnerable population. We hope that many more international NGOs will be encouraged to assist the Iraqi refugees in the future," said UNHCR Executive Committee Chairman Van Eenennaam.

"I hope the introduction of these INGOs will lead to more funding opportunities for this operation which is facing increasing problems of funding," added the Netherlands diplomat, wrapping up a five-day visit to Syria and Jordan, which together host more than 2 million Iraqi refugees.

To date, international NGOs have not been given permission to work with Iraqi refugees in Syria. A limited number of small local charities have been working with UNHCR over the past few years, but the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is UNHCR's main implementing partner in the country.

IMC will start work at a time when Syrian Arab Red Crescent clinics dedicated to refugee health care are having to cope with rising numbers of Iraqi patients. More than 150,000 refugees have visited the clinics since the beginning of the year, compared to 200,000 for the whole of last year.

Hussein Ibrahim, country director for IMC, anticipates the first clinic will open next Thursday in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, with clinics planned to open later this month in the city's Seyidda Zeinab and Masaken Barzeh areas.

He noted that IMC was "charting new waters working in Syria. We appreciate the trust placed in us by the Syrian government and UNHCR.... This is a very fragile population with complex health needs. We do not underestimate the challenge we are taking on."

Van Eenennaam's visit came at a time when UNHCR operations in the region are facing significant funding problems, with increasing numbers of refugees calling upon the support of the refugee agency as food and fuel prices soar and their savings dwindle.

UNHCR estimates that if no further funding is received soon, its support for refugee health programmes will have to end in August. In Syria, more than 18 percent of the registered population of some 194,000 Iraqi refugees suffer from a serious medical condition. In many cases Iraqis with health problems flee overseas so that they can get health care that is unavailable in Iraq.

During his visit to the region Van Eenennaam met with members of the Jordanian and Syrian governments, visited UNHCR operations and met Iraqi refugees to learn first hand about the situation. He will report his findings to the Executive Committee, or ExCom, upon his return to Geneva.

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

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The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

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