UNHCR and WFP chiefs visit Iraq, express gratitude for hosting thousands of Syrian refugees

Press Releases, 27 August 2013

The heads of the UN organizations responsible for refugee protection and food assistance visited the Iraqi capital today amid a growing exodus of Syrians into the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Iraq, which faces major security challenges and a vast population of 1.1 million internally displaced citizens, is host to some 200,000 Syrians. In the last two weeks alone, 46,000 Syrians crossed the border.

UNHCR chief António Guterres and Executive Director of the World Food Programme Ertharin Cousin expressed their appreciation to Iraq for welcoming fleeing Syrians and working with UN organizations to address their basic needs.

"With the escalation of this conflict, Syria could be on the edge of an abyss. This war has resulted in a humanitarian calamity without parallel in recent history," Mr. Guterres said. "When a war sweeps up a nation, there can be nothing more important to its people than open borders." Mr. Guterres urged all neighboring countries to ensure access to territory to all Syrians forced to flee.

"Enough," Ms. Cousin said, "now is the time for the global community to come together to ensure the violence ends and the healing begins. The children of Syria are depending on us not just to meet their needs today but to provide hope for a better tomorrow."

Mr. Guterres and Ms. Cousin met senior Iraqi officials, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Minister of Displacement and Migration Dindar Najman Shafeed. The officials expressed their concern about meeting the needs of rising numbers of refugees as well as security problems and worry that the conflict could spread.

As the conflict continues unabated, the UN officials noted that the costs of the humanitarian response are escalating and funding is short. While expressing appreciation for the generosity of international donors, they called on donors to recognize the funding needs to assist the growing numbers of Syrian refugees in Iraq. Mr. Guterres thanked the Government of Iraq for its generous support and for a $10 million donation announced today for UNHCR's response.

The officials noted that the presence of thousands of refugees creates a tremendous stress on communities where most refugees live. They pledged to actively engage development actors to help host communities so their infrastructure is bolstered and their burden is eased.

Ms. Cousin noted that in Iraq food assistance is provided to refugees primarily through a voucher a food delivery mechanism that allows refugees to purchase groceries in local shops.

"A WFP voucher gives refugees the ability to access the food available, support the local economy and makes them feel more welcome by the local community," said Ms. Cousin. She noted that food is readily available in the Kurdistan region but that refugees lack the means to feed themselves without humanitarian assistance.

The two UN officials will proceed tomorrow to Northern Iraq to visit refugee camps sheltering thousands of Syrians.


About WFP:

WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide. Last year, WFP reached more than 97 million people in 80 countries with food assistance.


About UNHCR:

http://www.unhcr.org @refugees @refugeesmedia

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as the UN refugee agency, was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. In more than six decades, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives.


Press Contacts:

WFP


UNHCR

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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.