UNHCR chief welcomes new government of Iraq, calls for end to displacement chapter
BAGHDAD - UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, concluded today (Monday) a three-day visit to Iraq, his first visit since the formation of the new government and his fourth as High Commissioner.
"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."
During his visit he met with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hoshyar Zebari. He also met with Dr. Iyad Allawi, designated Chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policy.
In his meetings, Mr. Guterres proposed a Government-led national plan of action designed to create the conditions for thousands of displaced Iraqis abroad and inside the country to return home. "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."
However, Mr. Guterres stressed that repatriation should be entirely voluntary. "To force people to return home against their will where insecurity prevails is unacceptable," he said referring to recent deportations of Iraqis from a number of European countries.
Mr. Guterres was encouraged by the grave concern expressed by the new Government about the targeting of minority and religious groups. Mr. Guterres said, "It is essential to preserve diversity in Iraq where virtually all civilizations have their roots."
There are 196,000 Iraqis registered as refugees with UNHCR mainly in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Additionally, UNHCR estimates there are around 1.3 million internally displaced Iraqis, and some 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," Mr. Guterres said. "We need to provide more humanitarian assistance to the most needy groups." The plan, 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 prefer to remain where they are.
Mr. Guterres visited the Um Al-Baneen IDP camp in central Baghdad, where 112 internally displaced Iraqi families are residing in old, damaged and abandoned military buildings. Mr. Guterres welcomed a decision by the Government to suspend eviction until a solution can be found to relocate these families, many of whom lack documentation and any source of income.
During his tour of the camp, Mr. Guterres met with several families, many who had fled here due to violence and others who had lost means to continue with paying rent. Many of the children are not in school. One mother told the High Commissioner she fears sending her son to school because "he might never come back."
UNHCR recently completed a project to build or reconstruct 20,000 two-bedroom homes in destroyed areas throughout the country.
Mr. Guterres noted that while numbers of Iraqis refugees in neighbouring countries registered with UNHCR have gone down, their vulnerability has been increasing.
UNHCR's registration database of Iraqi refugees shows that 34% are 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 challenging to find work, making them reliant on ever dwindling savings and the support offered by international organisations and local NGOs. One of the worst consequences of this poverty is the number of Iraqi refugee children who have left school to find casual work to help feed their families. Stressing the importance of supporting refugees Guterres said, "when an Iraqi child goes to school rather than work, you are investing in the future of Iraq".
While over 89,000 Iraqi refugees have returned to Iraq in the past three years, the rate of return has slowed recently and new asylum-seekers continue to register with UNHCR in neighbouring countries. Over 456,000 previously internally displaced Iraqis returned to their areas of origin between January 2008 and December 2010.