With tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing their homes every month because of continuing sectarian violence, the United Nations refugee agency today voiced growing concern over the “rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” facing hundreds of thousands of displaced people, both within and outside their country.
“Inside Iraq and in neighbouring States, an increasing number of families are becoming dependent and destitute,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “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,” he added, appealing to adjoining nations to continue extending hospitality and temporary protection and for countries beyond the immediate region to help carry the burden.
UNHCR briefed government donors in Amman, Jordan, this week on the situation.
The displacement has forced the agency to reassess its priorities throughout the region, shifting from assisting returns and aiding 50,000 non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq to providing more help to some of the tens of thousands fleeing their homes every month. Many are moving on to other countries in what could be termed a steady, silent exodus.
UNHCR’s 2006 budget of $29 million for its Iraq operation is still $9 million short and activities risk being cut before the end of the year if the funds are not forthcoming.
The Iraqi Government, UNHCR and its partners estimate there are now more than 1.5 million people displaced internally, including over 365,000 who have fled their homes and communities since the mosque bombings in Samarra in February.
UNHCR estimates that up to 1.6 million Iraqis are now outside their country, most of them in Jordan and Syria. Others are in Iran, some of whom 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,” Mr. Redmond said, noting that at least 40,000 Iraqis are reported to be arriving in Syria each month.
Tens of thousands are moving further afield; of some 40 nationalities seeking asylum in European countries in the first half of 2006, Iraqis ranked first with more than 8,100 applications. “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,” Mr. Redmond said. “Far more are leaving.”
Inside Iraq, the Government estimates that up to 50,000 people are leaving their homes every month. “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,” Mr. Redmond said.
“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.”