With up to 50,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes every month because of violence, it is high time the international community did more to settle them and alleviate their suffering, was the key message at a United Nations-hosted conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
Organised by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the two-day event brought together more than 450 representatives of 60 nations to seek ways of addressing the deepening humanitarian crisis of nearly four million Iraqis who have been displaced by the conflict in their country.
The world is facing the largest displacement of people in the Middle East since the conflict triggered by the creation of Israel in 1948, UNHCR said.
No-one expects Iraq's myriad problems to be solved in one conference, but the hope is that with so many key players focusing specifically on displacement, financial assistance will increase and efforts redoubled.
"We should not expect this conference to be a miracle medicine, a magic response to the difficult humanitarian crisis that many Iraqis face," said Radhouane Nouicer, director of the Middle East and North Africa bureau of UNHCR.
"But we certainly intend and hope that this conference will contribute to raising the awareness of the world to the humanitarian crisis that faces Iraq and Iraqi refugees as a result of the difficult security situation in their country," he said.
|A map showing the numbers of Iraqis who have fled to neighbouring countries, according to UNHCR, as of 12 April|
Addressing the conference, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said "the humanitarian dimension of the problem can no longer be overlooked". He noted that while Iraq conflict's political and military aspects are well covered by the world's media, "too little attention has been devoted to the humanitarian tragedy looming in the shadows".
Guterres, who chaired the conference, was joined in the opening session by UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes; UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq Ashraf Qazi; and the Director-General of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Angelo Gnaedinger. Participants also viewed a video message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The high-level event is expected to help set the tone for the UN's engagement with Iraq's displaced in the country, and its refugees in neighbouring countries.
Aid workers optimistic
Aid workers and analysts on the ground in Iraq are optimistic about the conference, seeing it as a necessary spotlight being shone on a problem that has been overshadowed by politics for far too long.
“The conference in Geneva is a great opportunity for donors and aid agencies to be aware of the critical situation in Iraq,” Fareed Abdel-Rahman, human rights analyst and a professor at Baghdad University, said. "The organisers of this conference should urge the world to help find an urgent solution to the [displacement] problem. The displaced in Iraq are suffering from hunger, diseases and serious depression.”
Fatah Ahmed, spokesman for Iraq Aid Association, said that those Iraqis who had left the country may have escaped violence but had not escaped unemployment, poverty and desperation in their host countries.
"Some people who could afford to leave the country are now without support and suffering from various kinds of discrimination. And the ones still in Iraq are desperate as they are victims of sectarian violence,” said Ahmed.
|An Iraqi refugee looks out over Amman|
“Local NGOs are hoping that things might change after this event. We don’t know what else to do to help these people but as some of the biggest organisations are going to participate in the meeting, for sure, a possible solution can be found. But even with all efforts, a solution will not be reached without the support of the Iraqi government, US forces and armed groups,” Ahmed added.
UNHCR hopes the conference will lead to creation of an international partnership to meet the growing needs of the Iraqi displaced and ensure support for the neighbouring countries that have so far borne most of the burden.
Of up to two million Iraqis who have fled abroad, the greatest number are hosted by Syria (watch video), with 1.2 million, and Jordan, with 750,00, but there are also an estimated 100,000 in Egypt, 54,000 in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon and 10,000 in Turkey, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Another 1.9 million people are displaced within Iraq.
UNHCR says it is vital to keep the borders to neighbouring countries open for Iraqis who need to flee and for the international community to ensure that Iraqi refugees are treated with respect and receive protection. Support for the Iraqi refugees – and their host countries – must continue until they feel safe to repatriate. Many Iraqis who had fled have exhausted their own resources and are now in desperate condition.
Doors closed to refugees
In a briefing paper released on Tuesday, New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit out at Iraq's neighbours for "closing off escape routes to Iraqi asylum seekers".
|A map showing the numbers of displaced people in the 18 provinces of Iraq, according to UNHCR, as of 12 April 2007|
"Jordan and Egypt have pretty much closed their doors to Iraqi refugees,
while Syria is shutting out Palestinians trying to flee Iraq," said
Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at HRW and author of the paper. "The Geneva conference needs to tackle the denial of asylum to Iraqis, not just apportion aid to those who are already out or still displaced inside."
The HRW paper referred to a number of recent measures taken by Iraq's neighbours to restrict the number of Iraqis able to cross their borders, such as imposing onerous new passport and visa requirements. It also noted concern that the religion or religious sect of fleeing Iraqis was increasingly becoming one of the criteria determining whether they would gain entrance to a particular country.
"It's scandalous that countries are refusing entry to people who are desperately trying to escape from high levels of generalized violence and persecution," Frelick said.
He added that while such countries were bearing the brunt of the Iraq's refugee crisis, they were not responsible for creating it.
"The United States and the UK bear a particular responsibility to help people displaced in and out of Iraq," said Frelick. "They undertook a war that has directly caused thousands of deaths, widespread fear and suffering, and forced displacement. This precipitated a sectarian conflict that has caused additional violence, persecution, and displacement on a massive scale."