U.S. group warns Iraq has world's fastest-growing refugee crisis

Wednesday, December 6th 2006, 9:01 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ A refugee advocacy group called on the United States to take the lead in helping the estimated 100,000 Iraqis who flee their country's violence each month, warning Wednesday it was the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.

The influx has overwhelmed other Middle Eastern countries, particularly Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, which have increasingly restricted the ability of Iraqis to work and acquire health care and other services, Washington-based Refugees International said in a report.

The group's Kristele Younes said the refugee crisis in Iraq is quickly becoming the world's largest, citing a U.N. figure released last month that 100,000 Iraqis are fleeing every month.

Last month, the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees said 1.8 million Iraqis were living in other Arab countries, though the figure included those living outside Iraq before the 2003 invasion.

``The numbers are very, very scary,'' said Younes, who met with dozens of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria last month.

The Refugees International report called on the U.S. to ``lead an international initiative to support Middle Eastern countries hosting Iraqi civilians.''

``The United States and its allies sparked the current chaos in Iraq, but they are doing little to ease the humanitarian crisis caused by the current exodus,'' said Kenneth Bacon, president of the organization.

The State Department said Washington has funded programs to help ``the most vulnerable Iraqis'' in Jordan and Syria and plans to expand that funding next year.

``Iraq's neighbors have showed great generosity in permitting significant numbers to Iraqis to enter and remain, and we continue to call on them to provide temporary asylum,'' said Nancy Beck, a State Department spokesman.

But Jordan has virtually closed the door to Iraqis and has stopped renewing residency permits for the approximately 500,000 already there. Syria, which does not require entry visas from Arabs, is now the top destination for Iraqis, with some 2,000 entering daily, according to the U.N.

``In Jordan, people are afraid. They have no legal status,'' Younes said. ``People are not going out of their homes, they're not sending their children to school. The situation is quite dramatic. They can't work, so their resources are being depleted extremely fast.''