In Syria, Iraqi refugees greet UN official spotlighting their plight

In Syria, Iraqi refugees greet UN official spotlighting their plight

António Guterres (center) on arrival at medical centre
The head of the United Nations refugee agency was greeted by hundreds of Iraqis refugees eager to share their stories of hardship during his visit to Syria, host to almost half of the 2 million who have fled the violence in Iraq, where he is continuing an official regional tour aimed at spotlighting their plight.

The head of the United Nations refugee agency was greeted by hundreds of Iraqis refugees eager to share their stories of hardship during his visit to Syria, host to almost half of the 2 million who have fled the violence in Iraq, where he is continuing an official regional tour aimed at spotlighting their plight.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres visited a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) basement clinic in the Sayyida Zainab district of Damascus, where tens of thousands of Iraqis who have escaped their homeland currently reside.

Praising the “excellent work” of the SARC, Mr. Guterres said, “We are going to increase the level of cooperation to make sure that more people are effectively assisted.”

Lifting his shirt and pant leg, one refugee showed the High Commissioner scars from wounds he claimed to have received by the militia. “I can’t go back to Iraq,” he said. “I’m sick with fear and my wounds.”

Another refugee shared her fears, saying, “My home was burned down and my husband murdered by the militias in front of our children. My eldest son couldn’t bear seeing his father killed and is now severely traumatized. I can’t go back to Iraq. Everyone is after us.”

Mr. Guterres is in Syria on the last leg of his weeklong Gulf region tour to draw the world’s attention to the plight of Iraqis displaced by violence, and to call for broader world support for Iraq’s neighbours – including Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey – to ease the humanitarian burden being placed on these countries sheltering refugees.

UNHCR estimates that in Iraq, there are 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) out of a total population of 26 million, with this number potentially swelling to 2.3 to 2.7 million by the end of the year. An additional 2 million refugees reside outside the country’s borders in the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since Palestinians fled after the creation of Israel in 1948.

In Syria, the High Commissioner met with several Syrian officials, including Vice President Farouk Shara, Interior Minister Bassam Abdelmajied and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Faisal Mikdad, and thanked Syria for its support of displaced Iraqis.

“Syria and Jordan in particular have been extremely generous to Iraqis and the international community needs to do its share now as well,” he said of the countries hosting refugees despite a tremendous strain on their social services and infrastructure systems.

Last month, UNHCR launched a $60 million appeal to allow the agency to continue providing humanitarian assistance in Iraq, where one in six have been forced to flee their homes, and surrounding areas.

In a related development, UNHCR voiced concern at the growing number of Palestinians within Iraq, who face mounting intimidation and violence, stranded in Al Waleed on the Iraq-Syria border. More than 750 Palestinians, with 73 arriving over the past two days, who have fled Baghdad are marooned in either a no-man’s land or on the Iraqi side due to Syria’s refusal to allow them in. Despite delivery of food and relief items by UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross, some resources have been stretched to the limit, as an abandoned school accommodating refugees is already full, with any new arrivals being forced to live in tents.

For the past few months, UNHCR has issued numerous appeals for assistance for the Palestinians who fled to Iraq following Israel’s creation in 1948. Some received preferential treatment under ousted President Saddam Hussein, but they have become targets for attack since his overthrow in 2003. Nearly 20,000 of them have already fled Iraq, but an estimated 15,000 still remain in the country, mostly in Baghdad.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis in Geneva, in recent weeks, “the Iraqi authorities have become increasingly uneasy with the growing numbers at the border and would like to see alternative solutions. There are signs they may force the group to leave the border area but currently there is no safe alternative for these refugees.”