UN presses Syria to allow in more Iraqi refugees

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GENEVA, Oct 5 (Reuters) The United Nations refugee agency said today it was pressing Syria to reopen its borders and grant Iraqis fleeing conflict and persecution ''temporary protection''.

Syria, which has taken in 1.4 million Iraqis, on Monday reimposed rules barring entry to Iraqi refugees, virtually sealing off their last escape route, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The agency said it was urging Damascus to allow Iraqis entry on humanitarian grounds, and had received verbal assurances that Iraqi refugees living there will not be forcibly sent home.

''UNHCR is advocating for a 'humanitarian visa' for Iraqis fleeing persecution in Iraq. That is still under discussion,'' UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.

''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,'' he said, referring to the mass exodus from Bosnia and later Kosovo in the 1990s.

The agency 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.

Most Iraqis who have succeeded in crossing into Syria this week have been truck drivers with visas, in line with exceptions Damascus made for those in the commercial, transport, scientific and educational sectors, according to the Geneva-based UNHCR Previously 1,500-2,000 Iraqis had been entering Syria each day.

''The situation now means that they have to apply for a visa in Baghdad before they get to the border, they can't do it at the border. This does effectively close the last external refuge for Iraqis,'' Redmond said.

Jordan, which has 500,000 to 700,000 Iraqi refugees, imposed visa restrictions a few years ago.

Redmond also said that Iraqis were among the 4,500 asylum-seekers who had arrived in Greece by boat from Turkey so far in 2007, a dramatic increase in flows to the country which normally has about 3,000 such asylum-seekers a year.

''Iraqis are turning up in Greece,'' he said. ''This sort of thing can have a delayed reaction. People will try to find other places to go.'' REUTERS JK ND1732

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