• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

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




UNHCR country pages

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

The High Commissioner

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

Syrians stream from their war-torn country into Iraq's Kurdistan region

Thousands of Syrians streamed across a bridge over the Tigris River and into Iraq's Kurdistan region on Thursday, August 15th. UNHCR Field Officer, Galiya Gubaeva, was on the ground with her camera.

Syrians stream from their war-torn country into Iraq's Kurdistan region

Iraq: Massive displacement from Mosul

In the past few days, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled fighting in the northern city of Mosul and other areas. UNHCR staff are on the ground to monitor the outflow and help those in need. The needs are immense, but UNHCR is working to provide shelter, protection, and emergency items, including tents. Many of the displaced left their homes without belongings and some lack money for housing, food, water or medical care. They arrive at checkpoints between Ninewa governorate and the Kurdistan region with no idea of where to go next, or how to pay expenses.

UN agencies, humanitarian groups, and government officials are coordinating efforts to do what they can to aid those in need. UN agencies are making an emergency request for additional support. UNHCR is hoping to provide emergency kits as well as thousands of tents. UNHCR and its partners will also be working to protect and help the displaced.

The exodus in the north comes on top of massive displacement this year in the western Iraqi governorate of Anbar, where fighting since January has forced some half-a-million people to flee the province or seek shelter in safer areas.

Iraq: Massive displacement from Mosul

Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Tens of thousands of people have fled to Erbil and Duhok governorates in Iraq's Kurdistan region over the past week, sheltering in schools, mosques, churches and temporary camps following a surge of violence in parts of central and northern Iraq. UNHCR and its partners have been working to meet the urgent shelter needs. The refugee agency has delivered close to 1,000 tents to a transit camp being built by the authorities and NGOs at Garmawa, near Duhok.

Many of the people arriving from Mosul at checkpoints between Ninewa and governorate and Iraq's Kurdistan region have limited resources and cannot afford to pay for shelter. Some people stay with family, while others are staying in hotels and using up their meagre funds.

In the village of Alqosh, some 150 people from 20 families, with little more than the clothes on their back, have been living in several overcrowded classrooms in a primary school for the past week. One member of the group said they had lived in a rented apartment in Mosul and led a normal family life. But in Alqosh, they feared for the welfare and education of their children and the presence of snakes and scorpions.

Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa RefugeesPlay video

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa Refugees

The heads of UNHCR and the UN Development Programme visited Syrian refugees and joint projects in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. High Commissioner António Guterres said that the Syria crisis had become the worst humanitarian tragedy of our times.
Iraq: Breaking BreadPlay video

Iraq: Breaking Bread

Shareef fled to Iraq a year ago to escape the violence in Syria. He opened a bakery, which has done great business. When he heard about a new wave of displacement in northern Iraq in August, he decided to help those in need by providing bread.
Iraq: Moving to a New Camp in KhankePlay video

Iraq: Moving to a New Camp in Khanke

A new camp for displaced people is taking shape in the village of Khanke in Iraq's Kurdistan region, with the help of UNHCR and its partners. After weeks of uncomfortable living in the courtyard of an old public building, Chenar and her ethnic Yazidi family are looking forward to moving to the new facility.