UN: 100,000 Iraqi refugees flee monthly

U.N.: Nearly 100,000 Iraqi refugees flee monthly to Syria, Jordan Nearly 100,000 Iraqis each month are fleeing to Syria and Jordan, forcing the United Nations to drop its goal of helping refugees return home after the U.S.-led invasion, officials said Friday. Instead, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has had to hastily draw up plans to deal with a silent exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who are desperate to escape the violence, chief spokesman Ron Redmond said. "Much of our work in the three years since the fall of the previous regime was based on the assumption that the domestic situation would stabilize and hundreds of thousands of previously displaced Iraqis would be able to go home," Redmond said. "Now, however, we're seeing more and more displacement linked to the continuing violence." It has been impossible to obtain accurate totals on the numbers of refugees because few Iraqis are registering with UNHCR, and most are being cared for by host families or charitable organizations, he said. The U.N. agency has been counting those entering Syria in recent months, however, and has found an average of 2,000 a day leaving Iraq by that route. "This is not a situation where everyone has left en masse at once, nor are they going to refugee camps," Redmond said. "This has been largely a silent or invisible exodus." The Jordanian government says another 1,000 a day are entering Jordan, he said. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said he couldn't comment on whether the figures were accurate. "Obviously there has been some level of violence in Baghdad and it's natural that you would expect some people to leave," Fratto said. "But we're going to continue to work to bring down violence so that Iraqis can stay there and stay in a free country and a free democracy." Redmond said almost all of the refugees are believed to be staying in Syria and Jordan, but that a few are returning to Iraq and still others are going to other countries. He noted that Iraqis were the leading nationality seeking asylum in Europe during the first half of this year, with 8,100 applying - a 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier. Figures are unavailable for arrivals in other neighboring countries, but the agency says an additional 50,000 Iraqis a month are fleeing their homes but remaining within Iraq, which classifies them as "internally displaced" rather than as refugees who have crossed an international border. "We've got a displacement crisis under way here, and the international community needs to do more to chip in to support the humanitarian needs of these people," Redmond said. The presence of the refugees is having a major impact on the Syrian and Jordanian economies because the influx has been driving up prices for housing, food and other commodities, Redmond said. So far it has been impossible to get a more precise idea of the post-invasion flight than the estimate UNHCR gave last month that 914,000 Iraqis had fled their homes since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Redmond told The Associated Press. UNHCR estimates that 425,000 Iraqis have been displaced within the country this year alone, largely due to sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of an important Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra in February, Redmond recalled that, before the March 2003 invasion, UNHCR had made contingency plans for 600,000 refugees and displaced people, and had a budget of US$154 million. But there was no mass exodus in the beginning, and UNHCR has long since scaled back to US$29 million. UNHCR now estimates that 1.8 million Iraqis are living in neighboring countries and 1.6 million are displaced internally, but those numbers include many who fled during the 1990s, long before the invasion, Redmond said. The agency told donor countries in Geneva on Thursday "that it was increasingly alarmed over the incessant violence in Iraq and distressed over the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced," Redmond told reporters. Until more funds are forthcoming UNHCR has had to suspend some of its activities, Redmond said. "Some of our staff in the region are volunteering to forgo their salaries for the next two months just to keep some of these projects going." The outflow of refugees caught the agency by surprise because it was hard to detect. "If people flee to camps, it's quite visible," Redmond said. "This is a steady stream of people now who are leaving." The agency now estimates there are up to 700,000 Iraqis in Jordan; at least 600,000 in Syria; at least 100,000 in Egypt; 20,000-40,000 in Lebanon; and 54,000 in Iran. "We fear hundreds of thousands more Iraqis who have waited to see an improvement in the situation are now teetering on the brink of displacement. Many urban professionals have already fled," Redmond said.