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Iraq refugees face dwindling UN funds, creating concerns of unrest

The UN has had trouble securing international funds to support as many as 2 million Iraq refugees throughout the Middle East who are barred from working in their host countries.

By Julien Barnes-DaceyCorrespondent / November 19, 2009

Eric Schwartz (center), US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, talks to schoolgirls during his visit at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) girls' school at a Palestinian refugee camp in Zarqa near Amman, on Monday.

Ali Jarekji/Reuters


Damascus, Syria

More than six years after the invasion of Iraq, up to 2 million refugees remain stranded in neighboring countries and fears are rising that international support for them is fading, threatening more long-term regional unrest.

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This week Eric Schwartz, the Assistant US Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, made his first regional tour since assuming his position in July and offered a grim assessment while in Damascus.

"This is a critical moment," said Mr. Schwartz in an interview Wednesday. "I am extremely concerned at the inadequate response to the appeals of the UN to support humanitarian assistance to Iraqis."

For 2010 the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Syria, where up to 1 million Iraqi refugees reside, requested an operational budget of $166 million. The agency only secured $55 million in international donations, down from $83 million in 2009. The story is similar elsewhere in the region.

Nearly all support for the refugees is channeled through UNHCR and observers worry that dwindling aid could provoke greater social and economic problems, extremism, and violence among the refugee community.

"The international community wants to believe that things are getting better in Iraq and so it's going to pay less attention to refugees outside the country," said one Western diplomat in Syria speaking on condition of anonymity.

Even as talk about the return of stability to Iraq reverberates internationally, more than 1,000 new refugees continue to register with the UNHCR region-wide every month, roughly matching the number of refugees who return to Iraq or are resettled in third countries. And with Iraqi national elections scheduled for January the potential for renewed instability could provoke a fresh surge.

Desperate for help

At the UNHCR headquarters here in Damascus hundreds of refugees continue to gather daily desperately seeking assistance. "I have nothing and I really need help," explained Abu Ali, who arrived in Syria from Baghdad just three months ago, escaping continued sectarian violence. "I had to leave: they say there's security, but on the ground it's a different story. They still kill you because of your ID papers."

Like many of the refugees scattered across the region, predominantly in Syria and Jordan, Abu Ali, is out of savings and increasingly worried about his plight. Banned by local authorities from seeking employment and unwilling to return home because of continuing violence, UNHCR support remains his only lifeline, says Abu Ali, who declined to give his full name.

'Expiration date' for donor interest

But the UNHCR says that international attention and financial support is moving away from the crisis, leaving them unable to address the needs of the lingering refugee population.