UN conference to spotlight huge Iraqi exodus
Yahoo News/AFP (FRANCE)
by Peter Capella
April 16, 2007

GENEVA (AFP) - A UN conference opening on Tuesday will try to boost support for Iraqis who have fled violence, amid warnings that the growing refugee crisis could cost billions and drive a wedge between Iraq's religious communities.

Up to 50,000 people are fleeing their homes every month in Iraq, more than any other country in the world, according to aid agencies.

"We're talking about four million people who are uprooted," said Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which called the two-day conference of senior officials from 60 nations.

"Iraq's infrastructure in many places is in a shambles; the capacity of the host governments outside Iraq to care for these people in terms of schools, social services, the economy, skyrocketing rent -- we're talking enormous needs."

"It's hundreds of millions (of dollars), it's probably in the billions," Redmond added.

Some two million Iraqis are estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries, many of them uprooted prior to 2003, while another two million Iraqis are displaced inside their own country, according to the UNHCR.

A report by the Norwegian Refugee Council released on Monday underlined the deeper impact of Iraq's displacement crisis following the upsurge in sectarian violence involving mainly Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

"After centuries of cohabitation among different religious and ethnic communities, the current wave of displacements leads to increased separation and could result in a permanent redrawing of the ethnic and religious map of Iraq," said Tomas Colin Archer, secrtary general of the council.

More than 800,000 Iraqis are thought to have fled their homes since the upsurge in violence in February 2006, and are being joined by 40,000 to 50,000 more every month.

The UNHCR wants far broader action from the international community rather than more financial pledges to supplement its 60 million-dollar appeal to help Iraqi refugees this year.

"What we're asking for is only a drop in the ocean compared to the needs," Redmond said.

Those needs include direct help for countries hosting refuges such as Jordan and Syria, as well as places in third countries to resettle Iraqi refugees.

"We're also asking governments that receive refugees to provide them with protection space so they are not sent back against their will," Redmond added.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that displaced people inside Iraq were now being turned away in the governorate of Kerbala, southwest of Baghdad, because of the strain on local resources and services.

A majority of the recently displaced Iraqis live in overcrowded public buildings or rented accommodation with little or no access to water, sanitation or electricity, according to IOM surveys inside the country.

"Failing the displaced now would lead to an increased exodus to neighbouring countries, which are already burdened," said Rafiq Tschannen, the agency's mission chief for Iraq.

Aid officials however admit that the insecurity in Iraq severely limits what can be done inside the country.

Few foreign aid workers are present while Iraqis working for international agencies do so largely anonymously and at great risk to their own lives.

During the US-led invasion four years ago, the UNHCR was braced for a massive exodus from Iraq that did not materialise.

Instead, exiled Iraqis who had fled Saddam Hussein's regime even went back home despite warnings not to.

"In fact, until 18 months ago, we had actually seen some 300,000 Iraqis return home to begin rebuilding their lives since 2003," Redmond remarked.

"But that initial return trend has dramatically reversed itself, particularly since the Samarra bombing in February 2006," he added, referring to a car bomb attack on a holy Shiite shrine that sparked the new bloodletting.

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