The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, says the international community has a moral and political obligation to help the nearly four million Iraqis who have been internally displaced, or who have fled their country because of growing violence and instability. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from Damascus.

Speaking to reporters in Damascus, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said, despite the intense international focus on the military and security situation in Iraq, little attention has been paid to the growing humanitarian crisis.  He said it is time the international community acts. 

"Indeed, we are facing a humanitarian disaster, with 1.8 million people displaced inside Iraq, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, and with 2 million refugees outside the country," he said.

UNHCR has launched a $60 million appeal to help the refugees and internally displaced over the next 12 months. The vast majority of those who have fled Iraq have gone to neighboring Jordan and Syria, and Guterres said it is time those two countries receive some international help.

"It is no longer possible to ask Jordan and Syria alone to bear this very heavy burden," he added.

Syria has taken in close to 1 million Iraqi refugees, and UNHCR officials say an additional 30,000 to 40,000 newcomers arrive every month.  Officials say this influx has put a tremendous strain on Syria's capacity to care for the refugees.

Refugees have told UNHCR here in Damascus that Syria had begun to tighten controls over who could come in and how long they could stay.  Many Iraqis feared they would be sent back home, where they said they would likely be killed.

UNHCR chief Guterres said Syrian officials assured him there would be no expulsions. 

"I was very happy to be reassured by the Syrian authorities that they have no intention at all to send Iraqis back to Iraq, in these extremely difficult circumstances of the country, against their will, in the present moment," he explained.

Guterres said he also discussed with Syrian authorities the plight of nearly 600 Palestinians who want to leave Iraq and are now camped along the Syrian border.  Another 15,000 Palestinians are believed still to be in the area around Baghdad, where Guterres said they remain in extreme danger.

Palestinians were welcome in Iraq, and received favorable treatment under Saddam Hussein. For this reason they have now been targeted and nearly 600 have been reported killed since Saddam's ouster in 2003.