Iraq + 4 more

Number of Iraqi displaced tops 4.2 million; shanty towns mushroom

GENEVA, June 5 (UNHCR) - The situation in Iraq continues to worsen, with more than 2 million Iraqis now believed to be displaced inside the country and another 2.2 million sheltering in neighbouring states. Calls for increased international support for governments in the region have so far brought few results, and access to social services for Iraqis remains limited. Most of the burden is being carried by Jordan and Syria.

Inside Iraq, some 85 percent of the displaced are in the central and southern regions. Most of those displaced are from Baghdad and surrounding districts. Since February last year, an estimated 820,000 people have been displaced, including 15,000 Palestinians who have nowhere to go.

"Individual governorates inside Iraq are becoming overwhelmed by the needs of the displaced. At least 10 out of the 18 governates have closed their borders or are restricting access to new arrivals," UNHCR spokesperson, Jennifer Pagonis, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

"UNHCR is receiving disturbing reports of regional authorities refusing to register new arrivals, including single women, and denying access to government services. Many displaced have been evicted from public buildings," she added.

Combined with the general lack of resources, this has led to a growing number of impoverished shanty towns. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq and the World Food Programme indicate that at least 47 percent of the displaced have no access to official food distribution channels.

The number of Iraqis fleeing to neighbouring countries remains high. According to government figures, some 1.4 million Iraqis are now displaced in Syria, up to 750,000 in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt and some 200,000 in the Gulf region. Syria alone receives a minimum of 30,000 Iraqis a month.

Pagonis noted that recognition rates of Iraqis in various countries outside the region, particularly in Europe, remained low. "UNHCR repeats its call for all borders to remain open to those in need of protection," she said.

UNHCR is rapidly expanding its operations and presence in the region, but the magnitude of the crisis is staggering, the spokesperson said. "We now have 300 staff working full time on Iraqi displacement. They are based in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Geneva and in Iraq itself.

"Since the beginning of the year, our offices in surrounding countries have registered more than 130,000 Iraqi refugees. By the end of May, UNHCR had interviewed some 7,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis and sent their dossiers to potential resettlement countries for their further assessment and action," Pagonis added.

She said UNHCR urged these countries to make rapid decisions and facilitate the departure of those most in need. Resettlement, however, remains an option for only a few of the most vulnerable Iraqis. UNHCR's goal is to provide up to 20,000 Iraqi resettlement cases to governments this year.

Analysis of detailed statistics show that in Syria alone, about 47,000 of the 88,447 refugees registered since the beginning of this year are in need of special assistance. Of them, about a quarter require legal or protection assistance, including many victims of torture.

Nearly 19 percent have serious medical conditions. UNHCR has opened two community outreach centres in Damascus and will shortly open two more. Food and medical aid is being provided to the most vulnerable. The agency is also working with an increasing number of local and international partners, who are helping with health, education, counselling and vocational training.

Two international UNHCR staff members are working in Erbil and another is scheduled to go to Baghdad when the security situation permits. These international staff are reinforcing more than 20 local UNHCR staff in seven locations in Iraq. The goal is to provide basic assistance and shelter to some 300,000 uprooted Iraqis inside the country by the end of this year.

This, however, is just a fraction of the overall needs. UNHCR legal aid centres in all 18 governorates have provided advice to more than 10,700 displaced Iraqis. By the end of 2007, UNHCR also plans to provide essential medical, health, food and individual assistance to 50,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis in neighbouring countries.