DAMASCUS, Syria, May 8 (UNHCR) - Boudewijn van Eenennaam, head of the UN refugee agency's governing body, on Thursday attended the signing of a landmark contract between UNHCR and the International Medical Corps (IMC), paving the way for the aid agency to become the first international non-governmental organization (INGO) to work with Iraqi refugees in Syria.
IMC will run three health clinics for refugees in Damascus under the agreement. The Danish Refugee Council and Premier Urgence are also slated to start work in Syria soon in support of UNHCR community services and education programmes.
"This is a very significant step in addressing the increasing needs of this very vulnerable population. We hope that many more international NGOs will be encouraged to assist the Iraqi refugees in the future," said UNHCR Executive Committee Chairman Van Eenennaam.
"I hope the introduction of these INGOs will lead to more funding opportunities for this operation which is facing increasing problems of funding," added the Netherlands diplomat, wrapping up a five-day visit to Syria and Jordan, which together host more than 2 million Iraqi refugees.
To date, international NGOs have not been given permission to work with Iraqi refugees in Syria. A limited number of small local charities have been working with UNHCR over the past few years, but the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is UNHCR's main implementing partner in the country.
IMC will start work at a time when Syrian Arab Red Crescent clinics dedicated to refugee health care are having to cope with rising numbers of Iraqi patients. More than 150,000 refugees have visited the clinics since the beginning of the year, compared to 200,000 for the whole of last year.
Hussein Ibrahim, country director for IMC, anticipates the first clinic will open next Thursday in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, with clinics planned to open later this month in the city's Seyidda Zeinab and Masaken Barzeh areas.
He noted that IMC was "charting new waters working in Syria. We appreciate the trust placed in us by the Syrian government and UNHCR . . . This is a very fragile population with complex health needs. We do not underestimate the challenge we are taking on."
Van Eenennaam's visit came at a time when UNHCR operations in the region are facing significant funding problems, with increasing numbers of refugees calling upon the support of the refugee agency as food and fuel prices soar and their savings dwindle.
UNHCR estimates that if no further funding is received soon, its support for refugee health programmes will have to end in August. In Syria, more than 18 percent of the registered population of some 194,000 Iraqi refugees suffer from a serious medical condition. In many cases Iraqis with health problems flee overseas so that they can get health care that is unavailable in Iraq.
During his visit to the region Van Eenennaam met with members of the Jordanian and Syrian governments, visited UNHCR operations and met Iraqi refugees to learn first hand about the situation. He will report his findings to the Executive Committee, or ExCom, upon his return to Geneva.
By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria