THE flow of Iraqis fleeing sectarian violence in their homeland has risen to more than four million - the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948.
Latest figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees show that 4.2 million Iraqis - 13% of the population - have been displaced since the US-led invasion of 2003, and that number is still rising rapidly as the sectarian strife intensifies.
The flood of refugees dwarfs the million Iraqis displaced in the 1990s as a result of the first Gulf War and the severe sanctions that the US and others imposed on the country for more than a decade after that.
"It's going on unabated. The magnitude of the crisis is staggering," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis warned.
In addition to the 2.2 million who have fled across Iraq's borders, a further two million have been driven from their homes but remain within the country, increasingly living in "impoverished shanty towns", Pagonis said.
The burden of those who have left their homeland has fallen most heavily on neighbouring Syria, which for once is becoming the object of worldwide sympathy. A total of 1.4 million Iraqis have now sought refuge in the country, and UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid Van Genderen said: "We have conservative figures that go from 30,000 to 50,000 going into Syria every month." Just over half of the 88,447 Iraqis who registered as refugees in Syria since the beginning of this year were in need of special assistance, including "many" torture victims.
While some Syrian politicians welcome the Iraqi refugees as brothers and sisters, others argue that the new arrivals, who have already increased the country's population by 7%, are becoming an intolerable economic and social burden.
The Syrian deputy prime minister, Abdullah al-Dardari, who has responsibility for economic affairs, claims that power consumption is increasing at such a rate that a new power station costing $1bn (500m) needs to be built every year.
Emad Shoaibi, head of the Data and Strategic Studies Centre in Syria, said: "Iraqis have brought with them crimes that Syria has never encountered before, like kidnapping and blackmail, rape and prostitution."
He believes that the refugees have created a gap between supply and demand in basic needs, leading to a threefold increase in rents. "A poor Iraqi is richer than an average Syrian," he said. "Iraqis can pay more for basic needs, which leads to increased prices for the Syrians."
Syria also fears that al-Qaeda terrorists are hiding among the waves of Iraqi refugees in order to use Syria as a base.
Meanwhile, in Jordan, sheltering some 750,000 Iraqis who have fled there is costing the government $1bn a year, according to the head of the country's information centre, Bishr Khassawneh. As a result, Jordan has adopted a hardline stance.
Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch, said: "Jordan has all but stopped the entry of Iraqi nationals at its land border and is turning away many, if not most, of the Iraqis attempting to arrive by plane.
"Since November 2006, refugees and other travellers have reported that Jordan was turning away at the border single Iraqi men and boys between the ages of 17 and 35. Most disturbingly, border guards are asking Iraqis about their religious identity and rejecting those who are or appear to be Shia."
Egypt, host to as many as 150,000 Iraqis, has also closed its doors to Iraqi refugees, while Saudi Arabia is building a $7bn hi-tech barrier on its border with Iraq to keep Iraqis out, and Kuwait is categorically rejecting Iraqi asylum-seekers.
"It's scandalous that countries are refusing entry to people who are desperately trying to escape from violence and persecution," Frelick said.
Yet EU governments have reacted coolly to proposals for them to take Iraqi refugees from Jordan under a UN resettlement plan. At a meeting in Luxembourg, EU ministers argued that it was cheaper to keep the refugees in the region. "With the money it takes to resettle one person in Europe, we could help at least 10 people in the region," said German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble, who chaired the meeting.
Sweden takes in more than half of all Iraqi asylum-seekers to Europe. In 2006 it approved 80% of asylum applications from 9,065 Iraqis. Greece and Denmark have the toughest policies, while Cyprus and Slovakia are almost as welcoming as Sweden.
The most recent Home Office figures show Britain rejected 1,675 out of 1,835 asylum requests from Iraq in 2005. But sources say the UK is talking to the UNHCR about how it might accept "a certain number".
The US accepted only 206 Iraqi refugees in 2006. But the administration has promised to take between 7,000 and 20,000 depending on funding from Congress.
In addition to Iraqis who have fled abroad, a further two million have been driven out of their homes into internal exile, many into impoverished shanty towns.
But Pagonis said the UN is receiving "disturbing reports" that more than half of Iraq's 18 governorates are preventing displaced people from entering their territories, either by stopping them at checkpoints or by refusing to register them for food aid and other basic services.
According to an American Congressional Research Services Report the biggest wave of refugees occurred after the American-led invasion of Iraq. The numbers dipped between 2003 and 2005, although there was a "secondary displacement" of Arabs by Kurds returning to the north. The refugee flow increased substantially again after the terrorist bombing of the Shia al-Askari mosque in Samarra last year.
More recently, escalating sectarian clashes have driven the numbers up once more. Seventy per cent of those fleeing are from Baghdad, the report says.
Nevertheless, the West is still hoping that, unlike Vietnam, when hundreds of thousands fled from communism after the American retreat, Iraq will stabilise sufficiently for most Iraqis to go back.