UNHCR and WFP chiefs wrap up Iraq visit, praise open border policy for Syrian refugees in Kurdistan region
As the exodus continues of Syrians into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the leaders of the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme paid tribute to the government here for giving refuge to almost 200,000 people, including some 47,000 arriving in the last two weeks. Despite the strain of accommodating such a large number, the regional authorities have opened their border and offered land to accommodate refugees in camps.
Speaking today at the Domiz refugee camp, 70 kilometers from the border with Syria and home to 45,000 refugees, UNHCR chief António Guterres said, "This influx represents a huge strain on the economy and infrastructure here, and having a war next door is always a threat. I express my deep gratitude to the Government and the people of the Kurdistan region who have welcomed so many Syrians in need of protection."
Also addressing reporters following the visit to the camp, Executive Director of the World Food Programme Ertharin Cousin added, "We are here for the people. We will be here for as long as the Government of the Kurdistan region continues to support us and as long as the people of Syria need us."
The two officials later visited the Kawergost refugee camp near Erbil, an emergency site set up on a dusty plain to receive the thousands of Syrian refugees who suddenly arrived during the last two weeks. Over 1,200 Syrians streamed across the border today, arriving here for registration.
Less than half of all refugees live in camps, most preferring urban areas where they can seek work. Citing growing violence and instability compounded by a lack of services, the majority of Syrian refugees fleeing to Iraq come from Hassake and Aleppo with smaller numbers from Damascus and Raqqa.
"When a country is physically destroyed, its people dying and fleeing and a state and its services collapsing, the most important thing a neighbor can do is to keep their borders open. The Kurdistan region is an anchor of peace and stability in a very troubled part of the world," said Mr. Guterres. Mr. Guterres and Ms. Cousin pledged to mobilize massive international support.
The two officials met the President of the Kurdistan region Masoud Barzani who offered his commitment to continue welcoming Syrians fleeing to his region.
The Governor of Erbil Mr. Nawzad Hadi spoke of the need for camps that can be expanded and equipped for growing numbers and changing weather. But he warned that "time is not our friend. We need to prepare for winter." The Minister of Interior Mr. Karim Sinjari, who also came along on the visit to the camp, declared his commitment to hosting refugees but noted that resources were stretched and expressed his hope that the international community would significantly step up support.
Beyond camp management, UNHCR registers refugees, a system that provides identification and also assessment of their individual needs so services can be provided accordingly. UNHCR also coordinates the response of specialized UN and NGO partners. All UNHCR work is done in close coordination with the regional authorities.
WFP provides $31 dollars per month for every family member, in the form of food vouchers. "That translates into $10.5 million worth of business to local shops," Ms. Cousin said. "Through these vouchers, refugees are providing commerce to these communities while also having access to fresh and nutritious food." Ms. Cousin noted that support from the international community is essential as needs continue to grow. WFP's program costs $30 million per week to feed Syrians inside Syria and in neighboring countries.
On Wednesday, Mr. Guterres and Ms. Cousin traveled to Iraq's Anbar province and visited the border crossing to Syria. They were encouraged that, although the border had been closed for over a year, officials were considering allowing some vulnerable refugees to enter and establishing a family reunification program. They noted the security concerns expressed to them by the Iraqi government including the risk of infiltration. But they expressed their concern for the people on the other side and hoped that the right balance could be found to allow more vulnerable Syrians to enter.
Mr. Guterres called the Syria conflict the "worst threat to global peace and security since the last century. We are witnessing death and destruction, the collapse of the state and the enormous suffering of the people," he said. He noted that all relief agencies are dramatically underfunded at a time when millions of Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria and the numbers of refugees are fast approaching two million.
But both officials declared their commitment to helping all Syrians in need. "We have witnessed in more than two years many dramatic moments and we have always mobilized our resources to respond," Mr. Guterres said. "Our commitment is with the victims. Whatever happens under whatever circumstances we will be there to reach Syrians needing our assistance."
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.
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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.
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