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UNHCR: Iraqis Running Out of Escape Routes

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, says Iraqis fleeing violence and persecution are finding fewer avenues of escape and he is appealing to countries to keep borders open to Iraqi asylum seekers. The High Commissioner was speaking to journalists at the conclusion of a one-week refugee conference in Geneva, from where we have this report from Lisa Schlein.

The U.N. refugee agency says Syria has imposed visa restrictions on Iraqis wishing to enter the country. Aid workers report only commercial truck drivers are being issued visas at the border.

Before these new rules went into effect, the agency says up to 2,000 people a day were crossing into Syria. Now the border crossing is practically deserted.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, says this effectively closes the last external refuge for Iraqis.

"The situation now is extremely worrying because Iraqis now find it extremely difficult to go out of the country and more and more difficult to move inside the country as there are internal borders also difficult to overcome between several governorates," he noted. "So, the situation is extremely worrying from our perspective because people are getting more and more trapped in extremely dangerous situations."

Syria, which is hosting nearly 1.5 million Iraqis, says it cannot cope with anymore. Guterres expresses disappointment with Western countries, that he says, are not fulfilling their pledges to provide Syria and Jordan with the financial support they need to assist the Iraqis.

While the situation in Iraq is particularly acute, it is only one of a number of asylum crises. One of the key issues discussed at the refugee conference this week dealt with the difficulty of providing protection for the increasingly large numbers of people on the move.

Guterres says millions of people are forced to flee from persecution or war, but millions of others find they are forced to flee for reasons such as extreme deprivation, climate change and environmental degradation. He says it is becoming more difficult to distinguish these different categories of displacement.

"If one looks at Darfur, it is true that in Darfur we have when a Janjaweed group attacks a village, we have a political problem linked to the political crisis in Darfur," he added. "But, there is also a competition for dwindling water resources between farmers and herders. So, war is many times driven by scarcity of resources. Scarcity of resources can be driven by climate change. All of these things are more and more mixed together."

Guterres says the international community has to find ways to deal with the new forms of displacement that are gaining shape in this century. Unlike refugees, he says people who flee for reasons of hunger or climate change are not protected under international law.

He says one of the burning issues of this century will be to find ways to help the many desperate people who put their lives at risk in search of a better life elsewhere.