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Iraq displacement

Briefing notes

Iraq displacement

13 October 2006

UNHCR briefed government donors in Amman, Jordan, this week on our growing concerns over the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation facing hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis, both within and outside their country.

Our senior staff from Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon told the donor meeting on Wednesday that displacement caused by continuing sectarian violence in Iraq has necessitated a reassessment of our work and our priorities throughout the region - shifting from assisting returns and aiding some 50,000 non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq to providing more help to some of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who are now fleeing their homes every month. Many of them are moving on to other countries in what could be termed a steady, silent exodus.

The government of Iraq, UNHCR and its partners estimate there are now more than 1.5 million people displaced within Iraq itself, including more than 365,000 newly displaced who have fled their homes and communities since the bombings in Samara in February. Increasing internal displacement is also having reverberations outside Iraq, where we're seeing more Iraqi arrivals in neighbouring countries and beyond. We estimate that up to 1.6 million Iraqis are now outside their country, most of them in Jordan and Syria. Others are in Iran. There are an estimated 500,000 Iraqis already in Jordan and some 450,000 in Syria. Some have been outside Iraq for a decade or more, but many have fled since 2003 and we're now seeing a steadily increasing arrival rate. UNHCR staff monitoring the border in Syria, for example, now report at least 40,000 Iraqis a month arriving there.

Tens of thousands more are moving on to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf States and Europe. Of some 40 nationalities seeking asylum in European countries in the first half of 2006, Iraqis ranked first with more than 8,100 applications. Statistics received from 36 industrialised countries for the first six months of 2006 showed a 50 percent increase in Iraqi asylum claims over the same period a year ago.

Where last year, we saw more than 50,000 Iraqis go home from neighbouring countries, this year we've seen only about 1,000 returns. Far more are leaving.

Inside Iraq, the government estimates that up to 50,000 people are leaving their homes every month, joining the 365,000 people who have become internally displaced since February. Some central governorates have seen a ten-fold increase in numbers of internally displaced since the beginning of the year. This displacement amid the ongoing violence in Iraq is presenting an enormous humanitarian challenge and extreme hardship for both the displaced and the Iraqi families trying to help them in host communities. The enormous scale of the needs, the ongoing violence and the difficulties in reaching the displaced make it a problem that is practically beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR.

The longer this goes on, the more difficult it gets as both the internally displaced and their host communities run out of resources. Thousands of displaced without family links or money are living in public buildings and schools, in often hazardous improvised shelters and in government-run camps administered by the Iraqi Red Crescent. There is an urgent need for shelter and aid items, food, access to water and employment. Those who have fled to other governorates often find it difficult to get access to even basic services such as health care and schools. Often, the displaced don't have any documentation and getting registered in a new location can take months. Internally displaced women and children have become increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Both inside Iraq and in neighbouring states, an increasing number of families are becoming dependent and destitute. Many of those fleeing now have little money, and those who fled earlier are running out of resources. The welcome mat is also wearing thin in some of the neighbouring states, which have been extremely generous in hosting so many Iraqis. While they are still tolerated, we're seeing stricter measures being implemented on duration of stay and visa extensions. Rents are high, with Iraqis blamed for driving up prices. Market prices have also gone up and health facilities and schools are becoming overcrowded in some areas.

We appeal to the neighbouring states to continue extending hospitality and temporary protection for Iraqis, and for countries beyond the immediate region to help carry this burden.

Wednesday's donor meeting was told that UNHCR's 2006 budget of $29 million for the Iraq operation was still $9 million short and that there are many new vulnerable groups in urgent need of assistance. Activities are now in danger of being cut before the end of the year if the funds are not forthcoming. Donors were also advised that UNHCR is doing a new, region-wide needs assessment based on the increasing requirements of the growing numbers of displaced and the most vulnerable.