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UNHCR Calls Iraqi Refugee Situation Unsustainable


A senior official with the U.N. refugee agency says the steady stream of refugees from Iraq to neighboring countries, as well as Iraqis fleeing their homes for other, safer parts of the country are taxing resources to capacity. If the exodus continues, the official says, the U.N. agency may have to consider setting up refugee camps near the Iraqi border. Lisa Schlein has this VOA report from Geneva.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says nearly two million people are internally displaced and more than two million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries. Syria and Jordan bear the biggest refugee burden.

Radhouane Nouicer is the UNHCR's director for the Middle East and North Africa. He recently returned from a two-week visit to Syria, Jordan, Iran, Egypt and Yemen to assess the situation of Iraqi refugees.

He says the continued stream of refugees and internally displaced may not be sustainable. He says some provinces in Iraq, particularly in the South, are already barring newcomers because they can no longer absorb them. He says they lack the infrastructure and water to accept more homeless people.

And, he says resentment toward Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan is growing. "If the situation continues to deteriorate inside Iraq, and, if new and major waves of Iraqis start leaving, we might face a situation whereby borders all over Iraq, all around Iraq are closed, and that is something on which we have not developed any plan to be frank with you, but we will do our utmost to avoid, including by erecting camps inside Jordan or Syria, not far from the border," he said.

Nouicer says the UNHCR tries to avoid establishing refugee camps. But, it is prepared to do so, if there is no other alternative. "The countries neighboring Iraq would prefer that we establish, what they call, safety zones inside Iraq. And, we do not see any area inside Iraq, which is completely safe. So, we prefer to drop that option. The less dangerous option remaining is to establish camps in areas, which are safe. That means within the Syrian or Jordanian or Kuwaiti or Saudi borders. But, it certainly is not the preferred option for UNHCR, because we still believe that people should have the ability to move freely in their country of asylum," he said.

Until recently, Nouicer says the situation in Iraq has been looked at from the security, political and military angles. But, not enough attention, he says, has been paid to the humanitarian dimension of this crisis.

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