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UNHCR chief Guterres meets Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani in Iraq

News Stories, 27 November 2008

© UNHCR partner
A displaced Iraqi woman waits for someone to help her carry aid items home in central Iraq.

NAJAF, Iraq, November 27 (UNHCR) UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres met Thursday with Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, briefing the respected spiritual leader on UNHCR's work on behalf of the world's uprooted people.

Guterres, wrapping up a three-day mission to Iraq, told Al-Sistani he considered his visit symbolic on the eve of the Eid al'Itha (sacrifice) holiday.

"I undertook this mission at this time to show solidarity with our staff who come from many cultures and religious traditions and with the refugees we serve," the High Commissioner said. "I am honoured to meet Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani in this holy city and I want to express UNHCR's solidarity with all of the Iraqi people. Many Iraqis have resumed normal lives following the upheaval in their country, while others continue to face hardship."

The High Commissioner praised the Grand Ayatollah for his tireless efforts toward reconciliation and stability in Iraq. He also explained UNHCR's Iraq operation and its global mission in some 120 countries on behalf of more than 32 million uprooted people, whom he described as the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

Guterres, who was accompanied by Staffan de Mistura, the UN Secretary-General's special representative in Iraq, said UNHCR's operations for uprooted Iraqis had until now focused primarily on refugees in neighbouring states, mainly Syria and Jordan. He told Al-Sistani that the two nations deserved praise for their generosity to Iraqi refugees. UNHCR supports both nations' efforts to assist the Iraqi refugees.

With the improved security situation in Iraq, including in Najaf itself, UNHCR was now moving toward increasing its presence in the country and stepping up its activities on behalf of internally displaced people and returning refugees, the High Commissioner said. The agency is doubling its budget to US$81 million in 2009 and increasing the number of provincial offices from the current 10 to 14, covering the whole country.

"More than 140,000 Iraqis returned to their homes between June and October of this year, the vast majority of them internally displaced people," said Guterres, who also visited the city of Ramadi, in Anbar province, on Wednesday. "We are fully committed to cooperating with the Iraqi government in continuing to establish the necessary conditions for further voluntary returns in safety and dignity."

During his mission, Guterres discussed with Iraqi government officials a variety of steps toward successful and sustainable return, including property restitution and compensation, reintegration and basic services and public distribution systems and cutting bureaucratic red tape to make assistance more efficient.

Guterres also met in Najaf with Governor Assad Sulran Abu Gelal and members of the provincial council. Although Najaf has produced no internally displaced people, it currently hosts more than 8,000 families uprooted from elsewhere in the country.

UNHCR staff in the area are supporting local authorities in providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced and are also assisting those who wish to return to their places of origin.

In addition to refugees, there are an estimated 2.4 million internally displaced Iraqis.

By Ron Redmond in Najaf, Iraq

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António Guterres, who joined UNHCR on June 15, 2005, is the UN refugee agency's 10th High Commissioner.

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Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

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Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

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The UN refugee agency has launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its work helping hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The new appeal concludes that unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region. The appeal notes that the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR has warned that the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

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