Iraqis increasingly "trapped" - UNHCR chief

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GENEVA, Oct 5 (Reuters) Iraqis trying to flee conflict and persecution at home are increasingly trapped, especially after Syria reimposed rules this week virtually blocking their last escape route, the UN refugee agency said on Friday.

Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the world was still turning a blind eye to the crisis and he urged all countries to open their borders to Iraqi refugees.

Some 2.2 million people are now uprooted within Iraq, where internal borders hinder travel from one province to another.

Another 2.2 million have fled to neighbouring countries, including 1.4 million in Syria and 500,000 to 750,000 in Jordan.

''It is important to realise that we are facing an extremely dramatic situation,'' Guterres told a Geneva news conference.

''All ways are looking more and more closed for Iraqis to leave the country ... The situation is extremely worrying from our perspective because people are getting more and more trapped in extremely dangerous situations,'' he said.

International support for Iraqis has fallen short of the dimension of the crisis, he said.

''What we are pleading for is an open attitude in relation to Iraqis -- this is not the moment to send Iraqis back to their country, especially in central and southern Iraq,'' the former Portuguese prime minister said.

Syria and Jordan had been generous in taking in Iraqis but found it ''more and more difficult to cope with the challenges of their presence and their impact on the economy and society,'' Guterres said.

''What we are appealing for is the expression of direct solidarity with the host countries. It is absolutely crucial for them to be able to cope with the challenge,'' he said.

The UNHCR said it was pressing Syria, which has taken in 1.4 million Iraqis, to let in more of those seeking to flee conflict and persecution.

Syria on Monday reimposed tight visa restrictions on Iraqis.

Jordan imposed similar measures some years ago.

The agency said it was urging Damascus to grant ''humanitarian visas'' to Iraqis, and noted it had received verbal assurances that those already there will not be sent home.

''This is not a first. Temporary protection is something we have suggested to governments for a long time in specific situations, even during the Balkan wars,'' spokesman Ron Redmond said, referring to the mass exodus from Bosnia and later Kosovo in the 1990s.

The UNHCR has long urged countries to grant refugee status to Iraqis fleeing violence-racked central and southern Iraq, and to screen those fleeing the north individually.

REUTERS PDT KP2240

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