1 in 5 Iraqi refugees in Syria suffered torture or violence back home – UN report

22 January 2008

One in five Iraqis registered with the United Nations refugee agency in Syria since January 2007 – more than 19,000 individuals – are listed as victims of torture and/or violence in their homeland, according to figures released today.

The statistic came in a report on a survey undertaken as part of a wider study of Iraqis registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Syria between 31 October and 25 November 2007.

The report highlighted the many forms of torture endured by Iraqi refugees, including beatings, electric shocks, objects placed under fingernails, burns and rape. Most instances of torture were perpetrated by militias – 69 per cent.

The survey’s conclusions call for increased advocacy among all groups within Iraq to end torture and for programmes to address mental health issues among Iraqi refugees and displaced persons, UNHCR spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva.

A total of 754 people were interviewed for the survey, providing information about themselves and their families, a total of 3,553 people, and every single one reported experiencing at least one traumatic event (as defined by the Harvard Trauma Survey) prior to arrival in Syria.

Seventy-seven per cent reported being affected by air bombardments and shelling or rocket attacks, 80 per cent reported witnessing a shooting, 68 per cent experienced interrogation or harassment by militias or other groups, including death threats, while 16 per cent had been tortured. Seventy-two percent were eye witnesses to a car bombing and 75 per cent knew someone who had been killed.

UNHCR together with its health partners are prioritizing psycho-social support for refugees. This includes regular referrals to psychiatrists, clinics and mental health institutions. UNHCR is also working with volunteers to support family members of people suffering from psychiatric disorders. The survey showed that depression and anxiety are highly prevalent, at 89 per cent and 82 per cent respectively.

UNHCR has already appealed for $261 million this year to aid Iraqi refugees and those displaced inside Iraq. Part of this will be allocated to psycho-social care and support in the governments hosting millions of Iraqis. “A large scale response, however, is extremely challenging in a region which does not have many psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health support mechanisms,” Mr. Spindler cautioned.

More than 2.2 million Iraqis are presently uprooted in Iraq while an additional 2 million have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries, in particular Syria and Jordan.


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