BAGHDAD: The head of the United Nations refugee agency warned Tuesday that Syria could be on the "verge of the abyss" as aid workers brace for a likely increase in the nearly 2 million refugees who have already fled the country's civil war.
Antonio Guterres, the head of the Office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, called on Syria's neighbors to keep their borders open to accommodate additional Syrians seeking to escape the war.
He made the comments during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad while on a visit to Iraq. The country's northern Kurdish region has been flooded with tens of thousands of refugees since the middle of the month.
Guterres stopped short of predicting the effect on the refugee crisis if the United States and its allies move ahead with a possible military intervention in the more than two-year-old civil war. But he said his agency is prepared for the conflict to "go on escalating" and called for further support from international donors.
"This is becoming a global threat. With the recent escalation of the conflict, Syria could be on the verge of the abyss," he said. "Obviously we need to be ready for any escalation," he added later.
Gutteres' visit to Iraq highlighted how even that violence-ravaged country has emerged as a haven for Syrian refugees.
He was accompanied by the head of the World Food Program, Ertharin Cousin. She cautioned that humanitarian organizations' ability to meet refugees' needs will become more difficult the longer the Syrian conflict grinds on.
"Everyone is concerned about the possibility of this becoming more than a conflict inside the borders of Syria," Cousin said.
U.N. officials say more than 44,000 refugees have poured into Iraq's northern Kurdish region since August 15, when Kurdish officials opened access to a bridge leading from Syria. Aid workers have described that surge as one of the biggest waves of refugees since the start of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011.
The influx in new arrivals has pushed the number of Syrian refugees in Iraq to roughly 200,000, 97 percent of whom are in the Kurdish region, according to U.N. figures.
More than 40,000 refugees are living in the overcrowded Domiz refugee camp, a vast tent city with little relief from the scorching summer sun. Smaller camps are scattered around the Kurdish region. Other refugees have been taken in by friends and relatives, and some have found shelter in schools and mosques.
"The regional government has shown a remarkable capacity to react," Guterres said. "But we have no illusions that Iraq has enough problems of its own and this comes on top of that. So international solidarity is absolutely a must if we want borders to remain open."
In addition to the Kurds' support, Iraq's central government has pledged $10 million toward the relief effort, according to Guterres.
Iraqi Kurds' largely autonomous three-province region is far safer and more prosperous than many other parts of Iraq, which is grappling with its worst spike in violence since 2008. The Kurdish region has its own armed force, known as the peshmerga.
The region's president, Massoud Barzani, earlier this month vowed to defend the large Kurdish population in Syria from Al-Qaeda-linked rebel fighters, though there is no indication for now that the regional government plans to deploy Kurdish fighters across the border. Doing so would further strain fraught relations with the central government in Baghdad and anger neighboring Turkey.
More than 25 million Kurds live in parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Many hope to one day carve out an independent homeland of their own.