GENEVA — Thousands of Iraqis are fleeing the country every day in a “steady, silent exodus” and a spike in sectarian violence has stopped others from returning to their homeland, the U.N. refugee agency said on Friday.
More than 50,000 exiled Iraqis returned from neighboring countries last year in the hope that calm might return after the country’s first post-war elections in January 2005.
That number has fallen to 1,000 this year.
“Far more are leaving,” Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing in Geneva.
“Many of them are moving on to other countries in what could be termed a steady, silent exodus.”
U.N. shifts mission to help fleeing refugees
Redmond said his staff were seeing 2,000 people a day enter Syria from Iraq. More are believed to be entering other countries but UNHCR has not recorded those movements.
Up to 1.6 million Iraqis now live outside their country — mostly in Jordan and Syria, and in increasing numbers in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf states and Europe, Redmond said.
Some of these left Iraq a decade ago but many have fled since 2003, when U.S. troops invaded the oil-exporting Gulf country and deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Redmond said the U.N. agency has had to shift its focus from helping Iraqis return from abroad to assisting the huge numbers of Iraqis who are fleeing widespread insecurity and unrest.
While President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq in May 2003, intensifying violence between insurgents and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government has caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes since then.
Another 1.5 million people are displaced within Iraq, including more than 365,000 who have been uprooted since February, according to UNHCR and Iraqi government estimates.
“This displacement amid the ongoing violence in Iraq is presenting an enormous humanitarian challenge and extreme hardship for both the displaced and the Iraqi families trying to help them in host communities,” Redmond said.
“The enormous scale of the needs, the ongoing violence and the difficulties in reaching the displaced make it a problem that is practically beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including UNHCR.”
More funding needed
The U.N. agency told donors this week it is $9 million short of a necessary $29 million budget for Iraq in 2006.
“Activities are now in danger of being cut before the end of the year if the funds are not forthcoming,” Redmond said.
UNHCR was also undertaking a new needs assessment for Iraq based on the increasing requirements of the growing numbers of displaced and the most vulnerable, he said.
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