UNHCR worried about effect of dire security situation on Iraq's displaced
GENEVA, October 13 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said here Friday it was increasingly concerned over the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation facing hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis, both within and outside their country. UNHCR relayed its fears to donors during a meeting last Wednesday in the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Senior staff from Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon told donors that displacement caused by continuing sectarian violence in Iraq has necessitated a reassessment of the agency's work and priorities throughout the region, chief UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.
He said the focus was "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. Some have been displaced since the early 1990s, but the figure also includes more than 365,000 people who have fled their homes and communities since unidentified assailants destroyed an important Shiite Mosque in the town of Samarra in February.
Increasing internal displacement is also having reverberations outside Iraq, with more Iraqi arrivals monitored 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," Redmond said.
There are an estimated 500,000 Iraqis 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 UNHCR is noting an increasing arrival rate. Staff monitoring the Syrian border, for example, 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 this year, Iraqis ranked first. Statistics received from 36 industrialised countries for the first six months of the year 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," Redmond said.
Inside Iraq, the government estimates that up to 50,000 people are leaving their homes every month. This movement amid the 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 violence and the difficulties in reaching the displaced make it a problem that is practically beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR," Redmond said, adding: "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 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. Often, the displaced do not have documentation and getting registered in a new location can take months. Women and children have become increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
"I have no idea what is waiting for us in the future," said 10-year-old Assad, whose family fled to the southern town of Nasiriyah to escape sectarian violence in their home town of Baji in Salah-el-Din district three months ago. "Our whole life has been changed. Even we could not bring our stuff from our house in Baji, because the fighters forced us to leave everything behind."
Both inside Iraq and in neighbouring states, an increasing number of families are becoming dependent and destitute. The welcome mat is also wearing thin in some of the neighbouring states, with the introduction of stricter measures on duration of stay and visa extensions.
UNHCR's Redmond called on "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, meanwhile, was also told that UNHCR's 2006 budget of US$29 million for the Iraq operation was still US$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.