Millions Leave Home in Iraqi Refugee Crisis Since the U.S. invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, nearly 2 million Iraqis have fled their country, and another 1.7 million are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
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Millions Leave Home in Iraqi Refugee Crisis

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Millions Leave Home in Iraqi Refugee Crisis

Millions Leave Home in Iraqi Refugee Crisis

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The United States announced this week it will admit 7,000 Iraqi refugees into the country within a year. Since 2003 it's taken in only about 600. The magnitude of the refugee problem in Iraq is enormous. An estimated two million people have already left Iraq since the war began and another 1.7 million at least are internally displaced.

Antonio Guterres is the U.N. high commissioner for refugees and a former primer minister of Portugal. He joins us in our studios. And Prime Minister, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ANTONIO GUTERRES (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees): It's a great pleasure.

SIMON: This has been called the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948.

Mr. GUTERRES: It is.

SIMON: Help us understand. We've got more than a million Iraqis who've reportedly wound up in Syria, more than half a million in Jordan. Why are those countries absorbing the bulk of the refugees so far as opposed to Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia?

Mr. GUTERRES: Well, both Syria and Jordan have had a very generous attitude. They have opened their borders. That was not the same in the other countries of the region. And even not considering them as refugees - they called them visitors or guests. They considered them as sisters and brothers because they all belonged to another Arab states.

They have been receiving them now for years, and as a matter of fact, paying a heavy price. The education systems, health systems no longer can cope with such a huge influx of people. You see inflation, you see the real estate market with very high prices, difficulties to find the housing, even for the local citizens.

And this is causing a change of moods in the public opinion. And more and more people start being against the presence of such a large number of Iraqis.

SIMON: How are the refugees in Jordan and Syria living?

Mr. GUTERRES: Jordan has a population that in average is richer than the population in Syria. But we are having more and more people also in Jordan. In Syria you have basically middle class and poor people. And more and more people that came with some resources after months, after one year, after two years, they're no longer anything to be able to sustain their livelihoods.

SIMON: Are there tented camps? Are they living in apartments?

Mr. GUTERRES: They live in towns, they share the neighborhoods with the local population. And that's why the pressure is so high. Until now both countries have rejected the idea of having camps. And of course we will never insist on such an option, because to live in a camp is much worse than to live in a neighborhood, even with the extreme difficulties they face.

And so it's essential to help these countries, to have a massive commitment from the international community to support these countries in order to preserve (unintelligible) space. But let's be honest, the international community cannot go on letting them abandoned.

SIMON: To put it this bluntly, you met with Secretary of State Rice. Are you satisfied with the amount of support from the United States?

Mr. GUTERRES: I think the United States is now moving in the right direction. That is the most important. It was announced that there will be a dialogue even with Syria on refugee issues, and I hope the United States will play a major role in the support of these two countries. In the support also to the broad humanitarian community, including ourselves in our actions there.

And it is also important that, as you have mentioned, some resettlement opportunities are now clearly being opened. And it's very important that this step, that I consider the first step, could also help solve not the problem of the refugees as a whole, but the problem of very vulnerable people.

It's clear that for the bulk of the refugees, the solution they want is to be able to go back once the political problem is solved. But we have very vulnerable people. We have unaccompanied minors, we have women in extremely difficult situations, handicapped people. We have members of groups that are particularly targeted. But we are a humanitarian agency.

We consider ourselves as nurses. We are not doctors. We don't cure the disease. We deal with symptoms. The disease is political and the solution is political.

SIMON: Mr. Guterres, while we have you here in our studio, can we ask, is there area of the world that's afflicted with the humanitarian crisis that in your judgment has gone relatively unreported?

Mr. GUTERRES: Well, there are many forgotten crises in the world. Nobody speaks about Central African Republic. Situation is (unintelligible) is appalling. You have not only displacement, you have conflict, you have areas that have been almost abandoned by the population. A few agencies try to do their best with very scarce results.

We could go on and on. Even the Democrat Republic of Congo, the number of victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in six months, corresponds to the number of victims of the tsunami. So we have a tsunami every six months in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Unfortunately, many (unintelligible) crises go on without being noticed and lots of people suffer tremendously because of that.

SIMON: Antonio Guterres, U.N. high commissioner for refugees, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. GUTERRES: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

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