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Iraqi Refugee Conference Addresses Plight of Millions

April 18, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A two-day UN conference is due to conclude in Geneva today with promises of more help from the international community for millions of Iraqis who have fled their homes.

At the start of the Geneva conference on April 16, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to increase its aid for Iraqi refugees.

Ban said in a video message to participants that Iraq's neighbors -- Jordan and Syria -- should keep their borders open and uphold the principle of no forced return of refugees.

Huge Numbers Flee Daily Violence

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis flee their homes each month to escape fighting and sectarian violence.

The UNHCR says that to date, some 750,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan and more than 1 million have gone to Syria. Overall, almost 2 million Iraqis have left the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

In addition, according to the agency, almost 750,000 Iraqis have been uprooted but have stayed inside Iraq since the beginning of 2006, bringing the number of internally displaced people to an estimated 1.9 million.

In total, this means that about a fifth of Iraq's people have been forced out of their homes since the war began.

The director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Angelo Gnaedinger, says it is not surprising, as the humanitarian situation in the country is extremely bad.

"Bombings, suicide attacks, shootings, abductions, murders, the destruction of civilian property, and forced displacements are a daily reality for millions of Iraqis," he says. "In this dreadful situation, and after years of violence, one wonders if a single Iraqi family has been spared human and material loss and their accompanying physical and psychological scars."

International Attention Needed

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told the conference that the international community so far has focused on the fighting inside Iraq but has paid too little attention to the refugee crisis.

"If this massive displacement [of Iraqis] has gone largely unnoticed, it is, in part, because most of those fleeing are not going to highly visible camps, but are being absorbed by host communities in Iraq and in neighboring states," Guterres said. "It is the biggest urban caseload ever dealt with."

Representatives of the World Health Organization also noted at the conference that even for those Iraqis who have not been forced from their homes, the health situation is worsening by the day.

According to a 2006 national survey, 21 percent of Iraqi children are now chronically malnourished. A stunning 70 percent if Iraqis lack regular access to clean water and 80 percent lack effective sanitation.

Iraqi Government Pledges Aid

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari pledged at the meeting that the government would not abandon its citizens forced from their homes.

"I think we've come here with a very clear message, that these are our people, that the Iraqi government will take its lead, will take the lead in addressing the needs of its people, and we will not abandon them, and we have concrete ideas," Zebari said. "We will raise them here."

Officials from more than 60 countries attended the conference.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International on April 16 said in a statement that "the Middle East is on the verge of a new humanitarian crisis." It urged the European Union, the United States, and other countries to take urgent and concrete measures to assist people forcibly displaced by the conflict in Iraq.

The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the United States and Britain bear the biggest responsibility for helping displaced people inside and outside Iraq.

HRW refugee director Bill Frelick in a statement that the two countries "undertook a war that has directly caused thousands of deaths, widespread fear and suffering, and forced displacement."

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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