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The UN refugee agency is warning that the “incessant violence across much of Iraq” is presenting the international community with “a humanitarian crisis even larger than the upheaval aid agencies had planned for during the 2003 war.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 4.2 million Iraqis have now left their homes. Of these, some 2.2 million Iraqis are displaced internally, and more than two million people have fled to neighbouring states, particularly Syria and Jordan. Many were displaced before 2003, but an increasing number are fleeing current unrest. In 2006 Iraqis had become the foremost nationality seeking asylum in Europe.
Humanitarian agencies had been planning for the large scale return of people in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, but instead increasing numbers of people are now becoming displaced. As a result, the entire relief strategy needs to be rethought, say senior aid officials.
Of particular concern is the fate of some 15000 Palestinians trapped in Iraq, especially that of 1400 who, the UNHCR says, are living in “desperate conditions in refugee camps along the Iraq-Syria border, unable to cross the frontier into a country already straining to cope with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. A steady flow of Palestinians have fled Baghdad since March 2006, when intimidation, forced evictions, and attacks against their community began mounting.”
A group of seriously ill Palestinian refugees have been denied medical treatment. A UNHCR spokesperson told the BMJ that four have now been allowed into Syria for medical treatment, of whom two were flown for emergency care to Norway, but they are still concerned about “dozens of individuals who have serious conditions and could die without urgent attention,” particularly as the temperature often exceeds 50°C at this time of year.
The UNHCR cautions that the rising number of displaced people in Iraq is presenting “an enormous humanitarian challenge” and “extreme hardship” for the displaced people and the Iraqi families trying to help them in host communities.
“The enormous scale of the needs, the violence, and the difficulties in reaching the displaced make it a problem that is practically beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies,” warns the UNHCR, which cautions that “the longer it goes on, the more difficult it gets,” as the internally displaced people and their host communities in Iraq run out of resources.
Similarly, the presence of millions of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan is putting huge strains on local health, education, and social services, and the governments there have appealed for further international help to cope with the influx.