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Guterres calls for sustained international humanitarian effort for Iraq

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Guterres calls for sustained international humanitarian effort for Iraq

17 April 2007

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

GENEVA - Declaring that Iraq's humanitarian crisis can no longer be ignored, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres today called for a sustained, comprehensive and coordinated international response to ease the plight of millions of people uprooted by the conflict.

"The humanitarian dimension of the problem can no longer be overlooked," Guterres told representatives from more than 60 nations at the opening of a two-day UNHCR conference on the humanitarian needs of nearly 4 million refugees and displaced people in Iraq and surrounding countries. "Almost 4 million Iraqis are watching us today. Their needs are as obvious as the moral imperative to help. All of us - representatives of governments, international organisations and civil society - are now compelled to act."

Addressing more than 450 participants from governments and international and non-governmental organisations, Guterres noted that while Iraq probably had the highest media profile of any conflict in the world today, it was at the same time the least understood humanitarian crisis. Although the conflict's political and military aspects are well covered, "too little attention has been devoted to the humanitarian tragedy looming in the shadows."

Guterres, who chaired the conference, was joined in the opening session by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes; UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Ashraf Qazi; and the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Angelo Gnaedinger. Participants also viewed a video message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presented by the Director-General of the UN Office in Geneva, Sergei Ordzhonikidze.

"The scale of the problem speaks for itself," Guterres said in his keynote address. "In the most significant displacement in the Middle East since the dramatic events of 1948, one in eight Iraqis have been driven from their homes. Some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced inside the country and up to 2 million others have fled abroad."

Many Iraqis were displaced prior to the fall of the previous regime in 2003. Between 2003-05, more than 300,000 Iraqis had returned home to begin rebuilding their lives, he said. But the trend has now dramatically reversed, particularly since the Samara bombing in February 2006. About 750,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes since that incident, with up to 50,000 more displaced each month.

"If this massive population movement has gone largely unnoticed, it is partly because most of those fleeing are not going to highly visible camps, but are being absorbed by host communities, in Iraq and in neighbouring states. It is the largest urban caseload UNHCR has ever dealt with," Guterres said in a reference to Syria, Jordan and other nearby countries. "But those host communities are straining under this extraordinary burden, while the suffering of the displaced grows by the day."

Guterres stressed the humanitarian focus of the meeting, but also noted that humanitarian problems are "symptoms of a disease whose cure can only be political."

"This conference is only a first step in what we hope will be a sustained dialogue and comprehensive, coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq," he said. The dramatic humanitarian needs of the Iraqis and the challenges faced by host countries required urgent, meaningful and genuine support from an international community committed to sharing the burden, he added.

"That includes financial, economic and technical support, but also expanded resettlement opportunities for the most vulnerable," he said. "The generosity of host countries must be matched by that of the entire international community."

Guterres said it was essential that countries in the region and beyond provide protection to Iraqis by keeping their borders open and ensuring they are not forced back into a situation of danger and have access to basic services and urgent material assistance.

"I have asked states to grant protection to those who have sought refuge on their soil," he said. "I believe that Iraqis in general, if escaping conflict and insecurity, meet the definition of a refugee. But for me, more important than terminology - whether a state calls a person a refugee or not - is the tangible protection afforded that person ..."

The High Commissioner said that given the huge numbers of uprooted Iraqis, it was evident that their permanent integration in countries of asylum was not a solution. And resettlement to third countries could only be provided to the most vulnerable of the Iraqi refugees.

"Clearly, the best solution for the overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees will be their voluntary return in safety and dignity - once conditions allow," he said, adding that in the meantime it was essential that they maintain their links with their country.

"Nobody can replace the action and initiative of the Iraqi government. I was very encouraged during my visit to Baghdad two weeks ago to see that authorities are both ready to support Iraqis abroad and to cooperate with the governments of host countries," Guterres said.

While acknowledging the difficult security environment, Guterres said humanitarian agencies must find ways to tackle specific needs inside Iraq and noted that UNHCR itself was scaling up its activities in the country as well as in neighbouring states.

"Inside Iraq, everything possible must be done to prevent further flight," he said. "We know only too well the devastating consequences of uncontrolled sectarianism. Efforts must be made now, rather than later, to prevent protracted displacement and an exile without end."