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Surviving in the city

Setting the Agenda, 27 July 2009

© UNHCR/J.Wreford
Iraqi urban refugees and Syrians at a busy market in Damascus.

GENEVA, July 27 (UNHCR) "Nothing really prepared us for this operation, so we had to adopt an unconventional approach to the way we did business." Those are the words of a UNHCR staff member in the Syrian capital of Damascus, referring to the challenge of responding to the massive Iraqi refugee exodus that has taken place since 2006.

As explained in "Surviving in the City," a new report from UNHCR's Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES), the organization is familiar with the demands of coping with large and sudden movements of refugees. But in most cases, those people are housed in camps.

The unique feature of the Iraqi situation is that the vast majority of exiled Iraqis have settled in the cities of neighbouring and nearby states, especially Amman in Jordan, Beirut in Lebanon as well as Damascus and Aleppo in Syria.

The report points out that UNHCR's task in these countries was complicated by a number of other factors, including its limited presence in the Middle East, the absence of refugee laws in the three countries of asylum, as well as their preoccupation with the Palestinian refugee question.

Despite these difficult circumstances, the organization's Iraqi refugee operation has many achievements to its credit. Taking advantage of international interest in the crisis, UNHCR mobilized substantial resources, rapidly scaled up its activities, deployed high-quality teams to the field and addressed the specifically urban characteristics of the exodus in an innovative manner.

Cash has been distributed to refugees by providing them with ATM cards. UNHCR has kept the Iraqis informed by means of SMS messages. Refugee women have been recruited to act as community outreach volunteers, encouraging other Iraqis to register with UNHCR and to benefit from the services it provides.

Opinion polls have been used to understand the needs and intentions of the refugees. And community centres have been establish to provide Iraqis and other city dwellers with an opportunity to meet each other, learn new skills and enjoy recreational activities.

As a result of these initiatives, as well as the generous admission policies adopted by Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and a substantial refugee resettlement programme, primarily to the United States, the protection offered to the uprooted Iraqis has improved over the past three years.

But the situation remains a fragile one. First, the gains that have been made could easily be reversed if negative developments were to take place in the political, economic or security environments.

Second, the majority of Iraqis do not have any immediate prospect of finding a solution to their plight. Most of them say that current conditions in Iraq prevent them from repatriating, while a significant number have no intention of returning there under any circumstances.

Only a limited number of the refugees can expect to be accepted for resettlement, and yet those who remain in the three countries of asylum have almost no prospect of integrating there or gaining secure residency rights, both of which have been ruled out by the authorities.

A final concern underlined in the PDES report derives from the very real prospect that the resources available to UNHCR will decline in the months to come. Other emergencies are now capturing the world's attention and the money available to humanitarian agencies may diminish as a result of the global economic crisis.

The question now looming over the operation is whether it will be possible to protect and support the Iraqi refugees, more than 250,000 of whom have now registered with UNHCR, in the absence of adequate funding.

By Jeff Crisp in Geneva

Click here to read the report.

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Urban Refugees

More than half the refugees UNHCR serves now live in urban areas

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

Lebanese Returnees Receive Aid

UNHCR started distributing emergency relief aid in devastated southern Lebanese villages in the second half of August. Items such as tents, plastic sheeting and blankets are being distributed to the most vulnerable. UNHCR supplies are being taken from stockpiles in Beirut, Sidon and Tyre and continue to arrive in Lebanon by air, sea and road.

Although 90 percent of the displaced returned within days of the August 14 ceasefire, many Lebanese have been unable to move back into their homes and have been staying with family or in shelters, while a few thousand have remained in Syria.

Since the crisis began in mid-July, UNHCR has moved 1,553 tons of supplies into Syria and Lebanon for the victims of the fighting. That has included nearly 15,000 tents, 154,510 blankets, 53,633 mattresses and 13,474 kitchen sets. The refugee agency has imported five trucks and 15 more are en route.

Posted on 29 August 2006

Lebanese Returnees Receive Aid

Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

Posted on 12 June 2007

Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehousePlay video

Iraq: Uprooted and living in a warehouse

An Iraqi man who turned down resettlement to the U.S. in 2006 tells how it feels now to be a "refugee" in his own country, in limbo, hoping to restart life in another Iraqi city.
Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat campPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits Arbat camp

Concluding a visit to Iraq, UNHCR chief António Guterres met with Syrian refugees in Arbat camp in the Kurdistan region. Guterres noted the recent proliferation of humanitarian crises, but urged the international community not to forget about Syria, "the mega protracted crisis of our times."
Iraq: High Commissioner visits displaced IraqisPlay video

Iraq: High Commissioner visits displaced Iraqis

This week UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is visiting Iraq to meet with families displaced by conflict in recent weeks. After listening to accounts of their difficult journeys to safety, Guterres called for more support to help deal with the crisis. He will also visit some of the 300,000 Syrian refugees currently living in camps in northern Iraq.