More than 4 million Iraqis have now been displaced by violence in the country, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday, warning that the figure will continue to rise.
The number of Iraqis who have fled the country as refugees has risen to 2.2 million, said Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. A further 2 million have been driven from their homes but remain within the country, increasingly in “impoverished shanty towns,” she said.
Pagonis said UNHCR is receiving “disturbing reports” of regional authorities doing little to provide displaced people with food, shelter and other basic services.
“Individual governorates inside Iraq are becoming overwhelmed by the needs of the displaced,” Pagonis told reporters in Geneva, where UNHCR has its headquarters.
More than half of Iraq’s 18 governorates are preventing displaced people from entering their territories, either by stopping them at checkpoints or by refusing to register them for food aid and other basic services.
Astrid van Genderen Stort of UNHCR said checkpoints are increasing in northern governorates, specifically along the “green line” that divides Kurdish-controlled zones from the rest of the country. Displaced people are also being stopped on the roads leading out of the cities of Karbala and Najaf, which are both south of Baghdad and considered holy by Shiite Muslims.
While many of the checkpoints were originally established for security reasons, they are being increasingly used to prevent displaced Iraqis from moving around the country, van Genderen Stort said.
Also displaced from food
Almost half of all displaced people have no access to official food distribution programs, according to U.N. estimates.
Most of those uprooted from their homes come from Baghdad and its surrounding districts. More than 85 percent of the Iraqis displaced within the country have moved to central and southern regions, Pagonis said.
She said about 30,000 Iraqis continue to flee each month to Syria, which is now housing 1.4 million Iraqi refugees. Another 750,000 are in Jordan.
While Iraq’s neighbors are bearing the bulk of the refugee burden, few Iraqis are being welcomed into countries farther away, particularly in Europe, Pagonis said.
The Bush administration says it will allow up to 7,000 Iraqis to settle permanently in the U.S. — up from 202 in 2006 — by the end of September and will pay more to help Iraq’s neighbors cope with the surge of refugees.
UNHCR hopes to find a permanent home for 20,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of the year.