Iraq Conference: Iraq and host countries promise to aid Iraqi refugees

Iraq promised a US$25 million programme of support for its citizens who have fled abroad and countries hosting some 2 million Iraqi refugees promised to continue providing asylum as the UN refugee agency convened an international conference to address the humanitarian crisis facing those driven from their homes by violence in Iraq.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres addresses a press conference on the first day of an international conference on the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. He is flanked by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari.   © UNHCR/S.Hopper

GENEVA, April 17 (UNHCR) - Iraq promised a US$25 million programme of support for its citizens who have fled abroad and countries hosting some 2 million Iraqi refugees promised to continue providing asylum as the UN refugee agency convened an international conference on Tuesday to address the humanitarian crisis facing those driven from their homes in Iraq.

In a news conference after the first day of the two-day meeting, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres announced key progress in the major challenges facing representatives of the 60 countries that had assembled - the Iraqi government assisting its citizens who are displaced inside and outside Iraq, the neighbouring countries keeping borders open to refugees and the rest of the world acknowledging the burden on the hosting states.

"I am very happy to announce that during today's session the Iraqi government has committed itself to a very meaningful programme of support for refugee communities abroad," Guterres told reporters. "This, together with the commitments to improve the work and the capacity of working together in relation to internal displacement, has been a very relevant moment in today's session."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari - who pledged: "We will not abandon these people" - announced the Iraqi government would spent US$25 million on a programme that would include setting up offices in host countries to help Iraqi refugees. It would provide education and medical services, helping to maintain the links to their homeland.

"It is also clear that the countries of asylum have pledged that they will go on granting protection to Iraqis, that they consider to send Iraqis forcibly into the country against their will is not acceptable, is not an option," Guterres said. "Protection will be granted, hoping that in the near future voluntary return in dignity and safety will be possible."

The bordering countries have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, especially Syria which is hosting 1.2 million Iraqis and Jordan with 750,000 Iraqi refugees. But Guterres said the conference - attended by 450 representatives of governments, international and non-governmental organisations - had shown it appreciated the burden on host countries.

"There was very clear consensus in relation to the recognition of the extremely important generosity of the host countries, namely Syria and Jordan, and of the need for the international community to be able to support not only Iraqi displaced but also the host countries that are facing a huge challenge with an enormous impact on their economies and societies," Guterres said.

The conference had opened with Guterres appealing for a sustained, comprehensive and coordinated international response to the humanitarian crisis facing millions of people uprooted by the conflict in Iraq - 2 million outside Iraq and nearly as many inside.

"The humanitarian dimension of the problem can no longer be overlooked," he said. "Almost 4 million Iraqis are watching us today. Their needs are as obvious as the moral imperative to help. All of us - representatives of governments, international organisations and civil society - are now compelled to act."

Many Iraqis were displaced prior to the fall of the previous regime in 2003. Between 2003-2005, more than 300,000 Iraqis had returned home to begin rebuilding their lives, he said. But the trend has now dramatically reversed, particularly since the Samarra bombing in February 2006. About 750,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes since that incident, with up to 50,000 more displaced each month.

"The scale of the problem speaks for itself," Guterres, who chaired the conference, said in his keynote address. "In the most significant displacement in the Middle East since the dramatic events of 1948, one in eight Iraqis has been driven from their homes."

"If this massive population movement has gone largely unnoticed, it is partly because most of those fleeing are not going to highly visible camps, but are being absorbed by host communities, in Iraq and in neighbouring states. It is the largest urban caseload UNHCR has ever dealt with," Guterres said. "But those host communities are straining under this extraordinary burden, while the suffering of the displaced grows by the day."

Guterres stressed the humanitarian focus of the meeting, but also noted that humanitarian problems are "symptoms of a disease whose cure can only be political."

"This conference is only a first step in what we hope will be a sustained dialogue and comprehensive, coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq," he said. The humanitarian needs of the Iraqis and the challenges faced by host countries required urgent, meaningful and genuine support from an international community committed to sharing the burden, he added.

"That includes financial, economic and technical support, but also expanded resettlement opportunities for the most vulnerable," he said. "The generosity of host countries must be matched by that of the entire international community."

The High Commissioner said that given the huge numbers of uprooted Iraqis, it was evident their permanent integration in countries of asylum was not a solution. And resettlement to third countries could only be provided to the most vulnerable of the Iraqi refugees.

"Clearly, the best solution for the overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees will be their voluntary return in safety and dignity - once conditions allow," he said, adding that in the meantime it was essential that they maintain their links with their country.

While acknowledging the difficult security environment, Guterres said humanitarian agencies must find ways to tackle specific needs inside Iraq and noted that UNHCR itself was scaling up its activities in the country as well as in neighbouring states.

"Inside Iraq, everything possible must be done to prevent further flight," he said. "We know only too well the devastating consequences of uncontrolled sectarianism. Efforts must be made now, rather than later, to prevent protracted displacement and an exile without end."