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Iraq: Pressure on safe havens inside and outside fuels fears of increased internal displacement

Briefing notes

Iraq: Pressure on safe havens inside and outside fuels fears of increased internal displacement

23 October 2007

Iraqi refugees continue to arrive in Syria, albeit in much smaller numbers than before. UNHCR field officers who visited the Syria-Iraq border yesterday (Monday) estimated that around 300 people were able to enter. The majority of them had applied for their visas in Baghdad. These people met the criteria of the new visa regulations, and stated their reasons for entering were for business, university education, and family reunification with relatives who either have a visa for Syria, or who are themselves Syrian.

Some Iraqis interviewed at the border yesterday said they received their visas from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. One told of the insecurity they faced reaching the embassy in Baghdad's Al Mansour district and said applicants had to wait a long time before being helped due to limited staff.

Inside Iraq we are closely watching developments at the Iraq-Turkey border. Northern Iraq is the least insecure part of the country and home to over 800,000 internally displaced Iraqis. At the end of September, the shelling of Iraqi towns on the Iranian border displaced at least 340 families. UNHCR is worried about ongoing instability that could lead to further displacement.

Almost 2.3 million Iraqis are presently displaced inside the country. Of these, more than 1 million were displaced prior to 2003. Another 190,000 were displaced between 2003-05, and slightly more than a million displaced after the first Samarra bombing in February 2006.

In addition, more than 2.2 million Iraqis have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly to Syria and Jordan. We fear that displacement inside central and southern Iraq will increase as safe havens outside Iraq and in the north become increasingly inaccessible. At least 11 of 18 governorates inside Iraq have some form of restrictions on internal movement.

In Syria, the cleanup continues at a UNHCR registration centre in Douma, 15 km outside Damascus, where a huge fire on Friday destroyed over US$1 million of relief items. We hope to resume registration there later this week.

UNHCR Syria has so far registered over 128,000 Iraqi refugees (83,000 of them in 2007) in Syria, most of them from Baghdad. Of the total, nearly 36 percent have specific needs, including medical (19%), child or adolescents at risk (4%), disabled (2%), elderly (1%), and women at risk (2%).

Over 6,700 families have been identified for a financial assistance programme that UNHCR will launch later this year in cooperation with a private bank in Syria. Based on assessment by UNHCR's community services staff, the families will receive between US$100 and US$200 per month.

In Jordan UNHCR has registered 48,833 Iraqis, with 87 percent originating from Baghdad. Some 14.4 percent have special needs, although UNHCR believes this will increase substantially as outreach teams travel to families who in many instances are afraid to approach the UNHCR office.