UNHCR chief Guterres praises Syria for generosity to Iraqi refugees
DAMASCUS, Syria, February 8 (UNHCR) - Beginning a two-day visit to Syria, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Thursday acknowledged the country's extraordinary generosity towards a million Iraqis who have fled violence in their homeland.
In meetings with several Syrian officials, including Vice-President Farouk Shara, Interior Minister Bassam Abdelmajied and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Faisal Mikdad, Guterres voiced appreciation for Syria's support to uprooted Iraqis and called for broader international involvement in easing the humanitarian burden on the region.
"Syria and Jordan in particular have been extremely generous to Iraqis and the international community needs to do its share now as well," said Guterres, who is on the final leg of a four-nation mission that also included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.
In the afternoon, the High Commissioner visited a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) clinic in the Sayyida Zainab district of Damascus, where tens of thousands of Iraqis have sought safety from the violence in their homeland. He was accompanied by SARC President Abdelrahman Attar.
"I am proud to be here," Guterres said at the basement clinic, where hundreds of Iraqis had gathered outside to see him. "Our partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is a very important one. We are working together hand-in-hand in support of Iraqi refugees in Syria. I have a lot of admiration for the excellent work that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is doing, and we are going to increase the level of cooperation to make sure that more people are effectively assisted."
Several of the Iraqi refugees, including many widows clad in black, shared accounts of their flight from Iraq and the many hardships they face in exile.
"I'm so scared," said one woman. "My home was burned down and my husband murdered by the militias in front of our children. My eldest son couldn't bear seeing his father killed and is now severely traumatised. I can't go back to Iraq. Everyone is after us."
Another refugee, lifting his shirt and trouser leg, showed the High Commissioner several scars he said were from wounds inflicted by the militia. "I can't go back to Iraq," he said. "I'm sick with fear and my wounds."
UNHCR last month issued a US$60 million appeal for its protection and assistance programmes for refugees and internally displaced people affected by the conflict in Iraq. The refugee agency is stepping up its work in support of host governments and NGOs in the region struggling to cope with huge numbers of Iraqis. An estimated 1.8 million people are displaced within Iraq, with another 2 million outside the country, mostly in Syria and Jordan.
"We feel that the High Commissioner's visit to Syria is a very important one," said SARC President Attar. "We believe he is drawing a lot of attention to the plight of Iraqi refugees in Syria, and to the support that UNHCR is and will continue to provide to the Iraqi refugees - especially in the fields of education, health and social services."
By Ron Redmond in Damascus, Syria