17 April 2007 Hundreds of concerned participants from governments, aid organizations and United Nations bodies gathered in Geneva today at a conference organized by the UN refugee agency in a bid to find ways to address the humanitarian crisis facing millions of people uprooted by the conflict in Iraq, hearing calls for a sustained, comprehensive and coordinated international response to their plight.
“The humanitarian dimension of the problem can no longer be overlooked,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres told representatives from more than 60 nations at the opening of a two-day UNHCR conference on the humanitarian needs of nearly 4 million refugees and displaced people in Iraq and surrounding countries.
He said their “needs are as obvious as the moral imperative to help.”
Urging results from the more than 450 participants from governments and international and non-governmental organizations attending, he said: “All of us – representatives of governments, international organizations and civil society – are now compelled to act.”
Mr. Guterres noted that while Iraq probably had the highest media profile of any conflict in the world today, “too little attention has been devoted to the humanitarian tragedy looming in the shadows.”
In a video message to the conference, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Iraq’s neighbours for their support, but pointed out that these countries “are finding it ever harder to sustain and provide basic services, such as health care and schooling.”
He voiced hope that the conference would galvanize international support to provide Iraqis more protection and assistance. “And I hope it will mobilize resources for establishing much needed protection space,” he added.
“For neighbouring countries, this means keeping borders open, and upholding the principle of no forced return. It means ensuring access to health and education services. For other receiving countries, it means continuing to provide asylum or other forms of protection,” he said, adding that the international community must foster resettlement opportunities for the most vulnerable.
According to UNHCR, the conflict in Iraq has caused the most significant displacement in the Middle East since 1948, with one in eight Iraqis driven from their homes. Some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced inside the country and up to 2 million others have fled abroad.
“It is the largest urban caseload UNHCR has ever dealt with,” Mr. Guterres said in a reference to Syria, Jordan and other nearby countries. “But those host communities are straining under this extraordinary burden, while the suffering of the displaced grows by the day.” He added that: “The generosity of host countries must be matched by that of the entire international community.”
Many Iraqis were displaced prior to the fall of the previous regime in 2003. Between 2003 and 2005, more than 300,000 Iraqis had returned home to begin rebuilding their lives, he said. But the trend has now dramatically reversed, particularly since the Samarra bombing in February 2006. About 750,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes since that incident, with up to 50,000 more displaced each month.
The High Commissioner stressed the humanitarian focus of the meeting, but also noted that humanitarian problems are “symptoms of a disease whose cure can only be political.”
The Secretary-General pledged the UN’s continued efforts to provide humanitarian assistance, while agreeing that a long-term solution is necessary. “Only a secure, politically stable and economically prosperous Iraq can reverse the tide of displacement. And only through assistance from the international community in this difficult period can Iraq fulfil its enormous human and economic potential.”