UNHCR chief calls for end to displacement chapter during Iraq visit
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres proposing a plan of action to allow thousands of displaced Iraqis to return to their homes.
BAGHDAD, Iraq, January 24 (UNHCR) - UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres flew out of Iraq on Monday after proposing a government-led plan of action to allow thousands of displaced Iraqis to return to their homes.
"The plan should have clear targets to address the security, property and reintegration issues that would allow people to return in safety and in dignity," Guterres said, referring to displaced Iraqis abroad and inside the country.
However, he stressed that repatriation should be voluntary. "To force people to return home against their will where insecurity prevails is unacceptable," Guterres said, referring to recent deportations of Iraqis from a number of European countries.
The High Commissioner, making his fourth visit to Iraq as head of the UN refugee agency, also took the opportunity to welcome the formation in December of a new Iraqi coalition government after months of political deadlock.
"This new government represents an enormous opportunity for Iraq, but also for our work," said Guterres. "I hope today we are marking the beginning of the end of the displacement chapter in Iraq," he added.
During his three-day visit he met with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He also held talks with Iyad Allawi, designated chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policy.
Guterres proposed the plan of action during these meetings and was encouraged by the grave concern expressed by government officials about the targeting of minority and religious groups. "It is essential to preserve diversity in Iraq where virtually all civilizations have their roots," he said.
Almost 200,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees with UNHCR, mainly in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Additionally, UNHCR estimates there are around 1.3 million internally displaced Iraqis, with 500,000 of them living in extremely precarious conditions.
"These people are living in dramatic circumstances. They are homeless or living in slums and feel a high level of despair," Guterres said. "We need to provide more humanitarian assistance to the most needy groups."
The High Commissioner said that his proposed plan of action, which UNHCR would help implement, should also devise a strategy for people displaced within Iraq to integrate in the areas they fled to if they preferred to remain where they were.
Guterres visited the Um Al-Baneen camp in central Baghdad, where 112 internally displaced Iraqi families are residing in dilapidated former military buildings. He welcomed a decision by the government to suspend eviction until a solution could be found to relocate these families, many of whom lack documentation and any source of income.
UNHCR has put a priority on shelter projects in Iraq. To date, the refugee agency has funded the building or reconstruction of 20,000 two-bedroom homes in areas affected by conflict across the country.
Some of the families Guterres met in Um Al-Baneen had fled to the camp due to violence and others had lost the means to continue paying rent. Many of the children were not attending school. One mother told the High Commissioner that she feared sending her son to school, because "he might never come back."
Guterres noted that while the numbers of Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries had gone down, their vulnerability had been increasing. UNHCR's registration database of Iraqi refugees shows that 34 per cent of them were considered to be vulnerable, including thousands of people with critical health conditions and a significant number of female-headed households.
The majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan fled more than three years ago. Many have found it hard to find work, making them reliant on dwindling savings and the support offered by international organizations and local aid groups.
One of the consequences of their poverty is that a growing number of refugee children have left school to find casual work to help feed their families. "When an Iraqi child goes to school rather than work, you are investing in the future of Iraq," Guterres said, stressing the importance of supporting refugees.
While almost 90,000 Iraqi refugees have returned to their country in the past three years, the rate of return has slowed recently and new asylum-seekers continue to register with UNHCR in neighbouring countries. More than 456,000 internally displaced Iraqis returned to their areas of origin between January 2008 and December 2010.
By Melissa Fleming in Baghdad, Iraq