- The Washington Times - Monday, December 18, 2006

AMMAN, Jordan — A shortfall in donations is expected to shrink the U.N. refugee agency’s budget for Iraq to less than $15 million, despite continuing sectarian violence that has displaced more than 3 million people.

The Iraq program budget of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has decreased steadily from a high of $150 million in 2003 to $29 million this year. Projections next year show less than half that amount despite an increasing need.

“What we’re seeing now is Iraqis in neighboring countries becoming increasingly desperate,” said Robert Breen, the UNHCR representative in Jordan. “They’re having more and more trouble accessing local services, and they’ve exhausted their savings.”

One-quarter of the budget is used for Iraqis living in neighboring countries, and the rest is for internally displaced Iraqis. Virtually no UNHCR staff members have worked in central Iraq since the violence forced a relocation to the relatively peaceful Kurdish north.

The UNHCR estimates that more than 1.5 million Iraqis are internally displaced, more than half of those since 2003. Another 1.5 million refugees are living in neighboring countries, mainly Jordan and Syria.

The UNHCR budget is so low that roughly $1 has been allocated for each of an estimated 800,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Mr. Breen said that immediately after the invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led coalition forces in 2003, the focus was on helping return to Iraq those who had left during Saddam Hussein’s regime. An insurgency has sent the flow in the other direction.

Umm Sabah, 50, has been living illegally in the Jordanian capital, Amman, since she fled Iraq in 1993. She said she survives by selling cigarettes on a bustling downtown sidewalk. Like most other Iraqis in Jordan, she does not have access to medical care or other public services.

“I am alone here. All of my children are in Iraq,” she said.

Mr. Breen said his office is focusing on raising awareness of the problem to donor countries. Major donors to UNHCR’s Iraq program have been the United States, members of the European Union, Japan and Australia.

Financial constraints and violence on the roads of western Iraq have prevented many others from leaving, Mr. Breen said.

Abo Othman, an Iraqi from Baghdad, said he traveled to Jordan on business and has overstayed his visa. To return to Iraq, he would have to pay a fine.

His family has moved once to escape the sectarian violence that has swept Baghdad neighborhoods. He said a 20-year-old nephew was abducted recently at a police checkpoint and killed, apparently because he was a Sunni.

Mr. Othman said he would like to take his family out of Iraq but was afraid to take his children to the government office that issues passports in Baghdad.

“The militias that run the country have people at the passport offices. They don’t allow people from one sect to get a passport,” he said.

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