Iraq faces dire and long-term humanitarian crisis, UN official warns

5 February 2007 –
5 February 2007 – Citing grim daily indicators – 100 people killed, hundreds wounded and thousands displaced – an official with the United Nations refugee agency predicted that Iraq’s humanitarian crisis will last for years, with ramifications extending beyond the country’s borders.

“We’ve got a vulnerable population which is being made even more vulnerable by the failing social sectors and social structures,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) senior Iraq operations manager Andrew Harper said last week upon returning from a trip to Jordan. “This is a [humanitarian] operation that is going to have to go on for years.”

Violence continues unabated in the country, and UNHCR estimates that 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. Particularly worrisome is that for most of these IDPs, “this is not a temporary displacement,” but rather a “permanent displacement,” according to Mr. Harper.

Since the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, 125 kilometres north of Baghdad, last February, 640,000 people have been forced from their homes. UNHCR believes that up to 50,000 people are displaced monthly.

“With the exception of three northern governorates,” Mr. Harper said, “there is basically no place which is safe inside Iraq, particularly if you’re from a minority, or if you are secular or come from a professional class.”

UNHCR has been especially concerned for the plight of Palestinians who fled to Iraq upon Israel’s creation in 1948. Although some received preferential treatment under former President Saddam Hussein, they have become targets for attack since his overthrow in 2003. Nearly 20,000 have already fled Iraq, but an estimated 15,000 remain, most in Baghdad. Syria is denying entry to approximately 700 who remain trapped in two makeshift camps on the Iraqi side of the border.

Along with Palestinians, Mr. Harper points to Syrians in Iraq as being the agency’s “main protection concern.” Despite continuous threats and crimes perpetrated against them on a weekly basis, “there is basically nowhere that we can send them at the moment,” he said.

The growing number of IDPs also has spillover effects in neighbouring countries. According to UNHCR estimates, there are between 500,000 to 1 million Iraqis in Syria; up to 700,000 in Jordan; between 20,000 to 80,000 in Egypt; up to 40,000 in Lebanon; and several thousand in Turkey.

Mr. Harper’s comments coincide with the trip of UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to the Gulf region, where he is scheduled to meet with Iraqis in Jordan and Syria.

Last month, UNHCR launched a $60 million appeal for the agency to continue its work in Iraq. “The longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it becomes for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq,” Mr. Guterres said.

Yet Mr. Harper acknowledges that the $60 million fund is not a catch-all solution, but rather a catalyst to increase visibility of displaced Iraqis throughout the world.

Instead, he assesses the actual price tag for the humanitarian project in Iraq to extend to the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. “It’s no use trying to fool ourselves that we are going to be able to address the total humanitarian needs with $60 million,” he said. “The money does not buy you much when you’re trying to provide long-term protection and assistance to so many.”

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