The United Nations said Friday it is increasing its efforts to ensure protection is provided to an estimated two million Iraqi refugees seeking shelter in neighbouring countries because of violence in their homeland.

George Okoth-Obbo, the director of international protection for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is leaving Saturday for a week-long mission to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to strengthen international assistance programs.

Syria has an estimated one million Iraqi refugees, Jordan has an estimated 750,000, and Lebanon has an estimated 40,000. Egypt, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey are estimated to have tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees as well.

Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN refugee agency, said in Geneva on Friday that Okoth-Obbo's mission would focus on making sure systems are in place to help the refugees, including registration procedures and resettlement programs.

He said the "most vulnerable" also need to be identified to ensure they receive the assistance they need.

"UNHCR is stepping up its work and its support for the uprooted as well as the host countries that have assumed such an enormous burden," Redmond said.

Okoth-Obbo is expected to meet government officials, UN officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, another 1.9 million Iraqis are believed to be displaced within Iraq itself.

According to UN estimates, as many as 50,000 people flee their homes in Iraq every month.

An estimated 712,000 have been displaced within the country since the bombing of an important Shia Muslim shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on Feb. 22, 2006, which triggered attacks and counterattacks between the Shia majority and Sunni minority.

Refugees to be focus of April conference

The UN refugee agency is holding a conference on the humanitarian needs of Iraqi people and displaced people in Iraq that is scheduled for April 17-18 in Geneva.

When Redmond announced the conference in late February, he said the hospitality of host countries was becoming strained.

"Their generosity has been exceptional, but security and socio-economic concerns are putting enormous pressure on host countries," he said.

"We need to bring all interested parties together to address this growing humanitarian crisis, the full extent of which the international community is only beginning to recognize."

According to the U.S. Iraq Study Group report, which recommends ways for the Washington to improve its strategy in Iraq, the situation in the country is dire in part because of sectarian violence.

"Violence is increasing in scope, complexity and lethality," it reads. "Sectarian violence causes the largest number of Iraqi civilian casualties. Groups of Iraqis are often found bound and executed, their bodies dumped in rivers or fields.

"The perception of unchecked violence emboldens militias, shakes confidence in the government, and leads Iraqis to flee to places where their sect is the majority and where they feel they are in less danger."

The U.S.-led war on Iraq began in March 2003.