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UNHCR Conference to Raise Awareness of Humanitarian Crisis in Iraq

More than 450 participants from at least 60 nations are expected to attend an international conference this week on refugees and internally displaced people in Iraq and the surrounding region. The U.N. refugee agency, which is hosting the conference, aims to raise awareness about Iraq's alarming humanitarian crisis and enormous needs. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency says this is not a pledging conference. Spokesman Ron Redmond calls the agency's $60 million appeal for humanitarian operations a drop in the ocean. He says it will take billions and billions of dollars to make Iraq whole again.

"You are talking four million people who are uprooted. Iraq's infrastructure in many places is in a shambles. The capacity of these host governments outside Iraq to care for these people in terms of schools, social services, the economy, skyrocketing rent-all of these things. We are talking enormous needs. And, of course, working inside Iraq is next to impossible because of the security situation as well. So that is a very dangerous, also a very expensive endeavor."

 The UNHCR is not discouraging offers of money. Indeed it encourages greater generosity on the part of donors and suggests they set up bilateral assistance programs with countries such as Jordan and Syria as well as private aid agencies.

Redmond says the aim of the conference is to alert the international community to the dimension of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and the region. It wants to get nations to do more to alleviate suffering and to share the burden with those countries that are bearing the brunt of the crisis.

He notes the world is aware of the military and political situation in Iraq. But, the immense and growing humanitarian needs are not as well known.

"Spiraling levels of sectarian, political and criminal violence, dwindling basic services, loss of livelihood, inflation and uncertainty about the future have all contributed to an exodus that is now estimated at 40 to 50,000 per month fleeing their homes inside Iraq," he said. "Since most of those who have fled have not gone to camps, the movement has not been so obvious. But, it is enormous nonetheless and those who have fled are becoming increasingly desperate as they and their host communities run out of resources."

Redmond says governments can do a lot to protect those forced to flee violence in Iraq. For example, he says some countries could provide resettlement places for the most vulnerable refugees. He says they can make sure refugees are not sent back to Iraq against their will. And, they can provide basic assistance to Iraqis who have no other means of support.

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