Iraq's Slow Refugee Funding Has Ripple Effect

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Despite U.S. pressure over the past month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has yet to provide significant financial support for the nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Lebanon, according to administration and congressional sources, even as the United Nations has told donors that it may scale back its assistance to the effort because of insufficient funds.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- whose programs for Iraqi refugees and displaced people are projected to cost over $800 million this year, according to the State Department -- informed a meeting of donor nations last week that it may need to slash support for Iraqis in Syria and Jordan because the agency has received only 60 percent of the funds it needs to help Iraqi refugees the rest of this year.

Last month, State Department officials told Congress that many countries have held back funds for refugees because the Iraqi government has delivered only $15 million to Syria, where there are about 1 million refugees, and $2 million to Lebanon, where there are 200,000; and it has pledged $8 million to Jordan, where there are some 500,000. Ambassador James B. Foley, the State Department coordinator for Iraq refugees, said at the time that the United States would press the Maliki government to increase its support.

"They are going to have to find a way to say yes," said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. The official added that Ryan C. Crocker, the ambassador to Iraq, is providing the Iraqi government with data on the types of assistance needed. "We by no means consider this over," the official said. "We are determined to get a yes, and high-level discussions continue."

Michelle Gabaudan, the UNHCR representative in Washington, said that Iraq's reluctance to offer funding "is a factor in dampening other countries' contributions." Foley told Congress last month that Gulf states and European countries are waiting for Baghdad to put up more money before boosting their own contributions.

UNHCR has reported that only 280,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and neighboring countries have registered with the agency, with others fearing that once they are known they will be deported. But that figure is expected to nearly double by the end of the year because refugees are running out of money. UNHCR provides Syria and Jordan with funds to support their education and health facilities so that they meet the needs of refugee families.

Gabaudan said UNHCR has sent representatives to Baghdad to encourage government contributions and to work with ministries preparing for the eventual return of refugees. He added, however: "We don't think conditions exist yet where we can advocate return."

In a recent report, Refugees International said sectarian differences further complicate the crisis. RI staff member Kristele Younes said that when a number of refugees returned to Iraq late last year, "the Shias received more support from the Shia-run government than did the Sunnis."

Congress has also pressed Maliki's government to contribute more and has attempted to add to the more than $200 million that the Bush administration has provided to UNHCR and others for Iraqi refugees this year.

Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) and a bipartisan group of colleagues wrote Maliki last month requesting that he use $1 billion in oil revenue to support the refugees and those displaced within Iraq's borders. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) also wrote Maliki last month with a similar request.

Delahunt and others on the House Foreign Affairs Committee are trying to add another $675 million for refugees -- some $454 million above the president's request -- to the emergency supplemental bill pending before Congress.

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