Fire ravages UN refugee agency warehouses in Syria

18 October 2007

The United Nations refugee agency today reported that a fire in its warehouses near Damascus destroyed tents worth about $1 million, setting back operations in Syria, which is home to over a million Iraqis who have fled violence in their home country.

There were no reports of injuries aside from some cases of smoke inhalation and shock, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which evacuated hundreds of Iraqi refugees from a registration centre adjacent to the three warehouses in Douma, located some 15 kilometres from Damascus.

Laurens Jolles, the agency’s representative in Syria, pledged quick action to address the damage. “We have worked hard to get the centre up and running to register and assist large groups of Iraqis. We will work around the clock to re-establish the services.”

Police were trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which firefighters brought under control about six hours after it started. UNHCR staff on site said one warehouse had been completely destroyed and a second one badly damaged. But all the stock in the second warehouse was saved.

A UNHCR supply officer said almost 6,000 canvas tents, 1,400 lightweight tents and one rubhall were destroyed in the blaze. He estimated their value at just over $1 million.

A UNHCR database with refugee information and all refugee documents were removed safely. The agency said its registration team hoped to resume work on Monday.

“Emergency services arrived on the scene within minutes of the fire starting,” said UNHCR spokesperson Sybella Wilkes. “By that time our staff had already evacuated several hundred refugees who were being registered close by, along with 40 UNHCR staff.”

More than 80,000 Iraqi refugees have been registered in the Douma centre this year. Tens of thousands of them have been referred for assistance, including food distribution for 35,000 refugees. There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, which urgently needs foreign assistance to shoulder the burden.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a report on Iraq released yesterday, commended Syria and other neighbours for helping Iraqis in need but cautioned that “their capacities are now strained to extreme levels.”

He called for the mobilization of assistance while cautioning that “this situation can only be addressed by changing the security situation inside Iraq and creating the conditions for the safe return of refugees and internally displaced persons.”

 

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