UNHCR chief tells Iraqi refugees that the world is waking up to their plight
DAMASCUS, Syria, February 9 (UNHCR) - High Commissioner António Guterres told refugee leaders on Friday that the world was awakening to the humanitarian disaster facing millions of uprooted Iraqis.
In a sometimes emotional, three-hour discussion with two dozen representatives of the huge Iraqi community in Damascus, Guterres noted that UNHCR is strengthening its programmes throughout the region and pledged to remain a vocal advocate for those forced to flee Iraq and for the host countries that are struggling to help them - particularly Syria and Jordan.
"We are facing a humanitarian disaster," said Guterres on the final day of a weeklong mission to the region that also took him to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan. "Until recently, when Iraq was discussed or covered in the media, the focus was on the military and political situation, not on the displacement problem. But now that's changing. The problem is so big it cannot be ignored."
An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis are currently displaced within their country, while another 2 million have fled to nearby nations, mainly Syria and Jordan. UNHCR, which last year struggled to get US$29 million in funding for its regional Iraq programmes, last month called for US$60 million for 2007 amid a displacement crisis that has seen 40,000 to 50,000 people fleeing their homes each month.
Guterres told the refugee leaders that his agency's strengthened operations would include more direct help to the Iraqi population in Syria and expanded support and cooperation for Syrian humanitarian agencies and government ministries.
Many of the refugee leaders told the High Commissioner that in addition to security, they were particularly concerned about education for their children and access to health facilities. Syria currently has an estimated 1 million Iraqis, most of whom have fled to Damascus. The government says they have put a huge strain on schools, medical facilities and other social services and have driven up rental and other prices throughout the capital.
"We now have a new agreement with our partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, and are finalizing agreements with the ministry of health, the ministry of education and the ministry of higher education," Guterres said. "We are also convening an international humanitarian conference on Iraq displacement in April to bring more international support not just for UNHCR, but for Syria and Jordan and the people themselves."
Many of the Iraqi refugee leaders expressed thanks for the generosity of the Syrian people, but said they feared having to return to Iraq and described the difficulties of living in exile. "We are an ancient people with culture, knowledge and energy," said one man tearfully. "Now look at us. What is going to become of us, of our children, in the years to come?
"Please relay to the rest of the world what you have seen in Syria and Jordan," he urged Guterres, "because you are our voice to the whole world. Everything we say around this table is only a small sample of the much wider suffering of the Iraqi people. We alone cannot reflect the enormity of the suffering our country is experiencing."
A teenaged boy told Guterres that in Iraq, he was a good student and a football player with a bright future. Choking back tears, he described how he had to quit school and sports once his family fled to Syria and was now barely earning enough to get by.
"We had a good standard of living before in Iraq," said a refugee woman. "We are educated people. We were well established, with jobs and stability and we owned houses and cars just like other people. Everything has changed now. Now we're living in the slums of Damascus in concrete-walled rooms that aren't even fit for human habitation. Our children can't go to school and many are reduced to begging in the streets."
Several of the refugees said women and girls had been forced into prostitution to support their families and urged more social services to help them.
Guterres told the Iraqis that the growing sectarian divisions in Iraq must not be allowed to take root in their exile community. "What we all want is peace in Iraq because only peace in Iraq will solve the problem," he said, adding that in the meantime, "don't let the divisions in Iraq be transported here. You need to have a sense of community among you, of tolerance toward everyone."
By Ron Redmond in Damascus, Syria