Iraq: UNHCR gratefully acknowledges UAE donation

Briefing Notes, 2 October 2007

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 2 October 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR is pleased to announce a $10 million donation by His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, in support of our operations for Iraqi refugees in Syria. This donation will help ease the suffering of Iraqi refugees and alleviate some of the burden being shouldered by host countries such as 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. High Commissioner António Guterres is sending a message of thanks and appreciation to His Highness, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of United Arab Emirates, in recognition of this donation.

In the region, meanwhile, UNHCR staff yesterday 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.

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 Ramadan, however, the visa restrictions were temporarily postponed. It now appears they have been re-imposed.

A closure of the border would effectively mean that Iraqis fleeing their country would lose their only remaining safe haven. Our team in Syria is 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. But so far we have no further clarity on this.

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 over 2 million refugees.

During the first six months of 2007, an estimated 19,800 Iraqis asked for asylum in industrialised countries outside the region (North America, Europe and Australia). At the same time, UNHCR referred the files of over 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.