Iraq refugees may be undercounted, experts say

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WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (Reuters) The number of Iraqis driven from their homes by war and sectarian violence could be far larger than official estimates of the country's deepening humanitarian crisis, some experts say.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Iraqi Red Crescent estimate that more than 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes within the country or have crossed Iraq's borders to become refugees.

The number includes about 2 million displaced before the 2003 US-led invasion by Saddam Hussein's campaigns against opponents including Shi'ites and Kurds.

But some analysts and organizations that focus on Iraq believe tens of thousands more Iraqis made homeless by violence have avoided registering with host governments abroad or the government in Iraq for fear that their safety and freedom of movement could be jeopardized.

That would suggest significantly larger humanitarian and security problems for Iraq and its neighbors, particularly Syria and Jordan, in what is already the worst crisis of its kind in the Middle East since 1948.

Other experts say some estimates could be inflated or have failed to reflect a migration of Iraqis refugees from Jordan to Syria and Lebanon.

''There's really no count because refugees outside Iraq are treated as illegal immigrants and many people think their best course of action is to stay in hiding,'' said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch.

''Inside the country, where the access of humanitarians to provide assistance is so poor because of security, we're really relying on local actors who could deflate or inflate numbers for reasons from political goals or to pocket assistance.'' Still others worry that a new flood of refugees could be in store if sectarian violence inside Iraq escalates after US President George W Bush's surge strategy to stabilize Baghdad comes to an end next year.

''We haven't seen the real refugee crisis yet,'' said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group.

UNDERCOUNT SUSPECTED Of the official count of 4.2 million displaced people, more than 2 million have been displaced inside Iraq, while another 1.4 million are believed to be in Syria and as many as 500,000 to 750,000 people in Jordan.

Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington, is among those who suspect the estimates significantly undercount the actual numbers.

''Both on an anecdotal level and on a research level, the real numbers don't match up with the declared numbers,'' said Yaphe, who believes the number of refugees living outside Iraq could be nearly double the UNHCR estimate.

''There are people who came illegally, or came legally but don't want to declare themselves as refugees ... They feel that if you declare yourself you are labeled: the state can control you; you could be deported; things could be done to you.'' Dana Graber Ladek, Iraqi specialist for the International Organization for Migration, said thousands more inside Iraq, including many Sunnis, have chosen not to register with the Shi'ite-dominated government often because of security concerns.

''It's very difficult to know how many those might be. It could be thousands, it could be hundreds of thousands. Who knows? If we talk about those within the country it could be even a million,'' she said.

But unregistered people in Iraq may not mean a greater strain on the country, because they tend to be better educated and to hold steady jobs.

''It doesn't change the fact that they were forced from their homes. But are they the most vulnerable? No. Probably the 2.25 million who have been assessed or registered are the most vulnerable of the displaced,'' Ladek said.

REUTERS ARB PM1820

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