2 February 2007With the exodus from strife-torn Iraq now the largest population movement since Palestinians were displaced after the creation of Israel in 1948, the head of the United Nations refugee agency today left for a mission to the Middle East focussed on strengthening cooperation and assessing the agency’s programmes for the hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis. UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres will start his weeklong visit in Saudi Arabia, before travelling on to Kuwait then Jordan and Syria, a spokesperson told reporters in Geneva, adding that it will be the agency chief’s first visit to the Gulf region since he assumed office in June 2005.“The High Commissioner is extremely concerned about the continuing violence and displacement in Iraq and the impact it’s having on the region. UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.8 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally, while up to 2 million others have fled to nearby countries and further afield,” said spokesperson Ron Redmond.“While many had fled before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing to other areas inside their country. An estimated 640,000 Iraqis became internally displaced over the past year, particularly since the Samarra bombings in February 2006, and up to 50,000 people continue to flee each month.”During his meetings in Saudi Arabia and then Kuwait, Mr Guterres is particularly interested in discussing the expanded involvement of Gulf Cooperation Council States in the overall governance and activities of UNHCR. During his visit to Jordan, he is also scheduled to meet Iraqis who have fled their homeland.On Wednesday evening, he will travel to Syria, where he will hold meetings with several senior officials, members of the UN Country Team, diplomats and non-governmental organization (NGO) partners on Thursday and Friday. He will also visit Iraqis who have fled their country and view humanitarian projects and plans by UNHCR and its partners.Estimates of Iraqis displaced in neighbouring States include between 500,000 to 1 million in Syria; up to 700,000 in Jordan (including about 250,000 from before 2003, many of whom enjoy permanent residency); between 20,000 and 80,000 in Egypt; and up to 40,000 in Lebanon. Turkey has a few thousand Iraqis, according to UNHCR. Some of those in nearby countries also fled before 2003, but tens of thousands are leaving Iraq every month, mostly to Syria and Jordan. The current exodus is the largest population movement in the Middle East since Palestinians were displaced following the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.Mr. Guterres’ visit comes less than a month after UNHCR issued a $60 million appeal to fund its work for Iraqis displaced inside their country, for non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq, and for Iraqis and others who have fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey and Iran.