- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

GENEVA — Syrian officials said yesterday the flood of Iraqi refugees is straining their country’s resources and complained that with more than 1 million Iraqis now living in their territory, they are unable to absorb any more.

The Syrians, attending a United Nations-sponsored conference on the Iraqi-refugee problem, also challenged Iraq to follow through on an April pledge to provide $25 million to assist Iraqi nationals in neighboring countries.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that the war in Iraq has prompted between 1.2 million and 1.4 million people to flee to Syria and 500,000 to 750,000 more to seek refuge in Jordan. An additional 2.2 million are internally displaced inside Iraq.

The advocacy group Amnesty International said in a new report that Syria and Jordan are already tightening border controls and cutting off the main escape routes for people fleeing sectarian and other violence in Iraq.

Antonio Guterres, the high commissioner, told a session of his agency’s ruling executive body yesterday that the “dramatic impact on the economy and society” of Syria and Jordan underscored “the pressing need for greater international solidarity.”

Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for refugees and migration, acknowledged that the situation of the displaced Iraqis “is precarious” and that other governments have a collective responsibility to help the host governments “provide education and health care to this population.”

The U.S. has provided $39 million to a U.N. appeal for schooling for the displaced Iraqi children, and has made “more than $200 million available in 2007 to assist displaced Iraqis,” she said.

But that was scant consolation to the Syrians, who said the refugees cost their country some $2.5 billion last year.

A report last week by Amnesty International also accused other states of doing too little to help shoulder the burden of the displaced Iraqis.

“The desperate humanitarian situation … has been largely ignored by the world,” said Amnesty’s Malcolm Smart, director of its Middle East and North Africa Program.

“A deepening humanitarian crisis and greater political instability across the wider region are looming, unless the international community meets its obligation to shoulder a fair share of the responsibility for protecting and assisting Iraqi refugees,” he warned.

John Holmes, the U.N. emergency-relief coordinator, said the humanitarian problems inside Iraq are even harder to deal with than those in Syria and Jordan.

“We are still grappling with the challenge of devising a credible operational plan with the agencies and [nongovernmental organizations] to face up to the internal needs. It would not be right to raise expectations unduly. But we certainly cannot duck the problem and need to find ways of stepping up our programs,” he said.

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