UNHCR appeals for $90.6 million for Iraq operations
GENEVA, June 26 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today asked for $90.6 million to fund its work in post-war Iraq through the end of the year. The money will allow UNHCR to continue helping more than 110,000 refugees in the country, as well as displaced Iraqis who are choosing to return home on their own.
So far, the agency has already received more than $59 million in funds before and during the recent war to prepare for a possible refugee outflow from Iraq. But it still needs some $31 million to meet its estimated needs through the end of 2003.
Explaining the appeal launched on Thursday, UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers said, "Iraq is facing enormous needs after years of neglect. UNHCR and our humanitarian partners require urgent assistance to help the Iraqi people and to maintain life-giving aid programmes to ensure that returning Iraqis have the basic assistance and infrastructure so their return and reintegration is durable."
He cautioned that this will take some time, adding that he plans to visit the Iraq region in mid-July to get a first-hand look at UNHCR's operations there. In Iraq alone, the agency has more than 60 staff working in three main regions - Baghdad, the north and the south.
At the moment, UNHCR's work in Iraq involves assisting more than 4,000 Palestinian refugees who were evicted from their homes in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The agency has provided them with tents and relief aid, and is working to move them to vacant government buildings as soon as possible.
This week, the refugee agency started registering undocumented Syrian refugees in Baghdad, many of whom have said they would like to return home. UNHCR has also resumed assistance activities in Al Tash and Makhmour refugee camps (west and north of Baghdad respectively), as well as in Iranian refugee settlements in southern Iraq. In addition, the agency is helping some 2,000 refugees from a recent conflict in Jordan's camps, and in the no man's land near the Iraq-Jordan border.
Refugees aside, UNHCR is also working to ease tensions on the ground as internally displaced Iraqis move back to their homes, some 20 years after Saddam's regime forced them out under an "Arabisation policy". This week, the agency distributed aid to some 500 Iraqi Kurds returning to villages in northern Iraq's Makhmour district in an attempt to prevent new internal conflicts.
Another challenge lies in managing the return of Iraqi refugees from surrounding countries. Arguing that Iraq is not yet safe enough for repatriation, UNHCR has advised some 500,000 Iraqi refugees living mainly in Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and further afield that they should postpone going home until security and the necessary infrastructure can be established.
In the longer term, when the situation has stabilised in Iraq, UNHCR plans to help repatriate up to 500,000 Iraqi asylum seekers, refugees and other exiles in refugee-like situations outside their homeland. This number accounts for about half of an estimated 1 million Iraqi exiles around the world.
"This year we will largely focus on laying the groundwork for returns," said High Commissioner Lubbers. "I don't anticipate large-scale organised return until next year."
Much more needs to be done before an organised voluntary repatriation to Iraq can take place. For example, many of the Iraqi refugees now in Iran lost their Iraqi identity papers when they were expelled from their homeland. UNHCR plans to work closely with the Baghdad authorities to provide new documents for the refugees once they go back.
To ensure that returns are sustainable, the agency is also planning assistance programmes in the refugees' home areas, rehabilitating health centres, water facilities and other infrastructure.
When he visits Iraq in July, High Commissioner Lubbers plans to meet with Iraqi community leaders and officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority, and visit displaced Iraqis in the north of the country and marsh Arabs in the south. He also hopes to visit some of the 202,000 Iraqi refugees living in the Islamic Republic of ran.