Guterres visits Iraq's Anbar Province, announces opening of new UNHCR office
RAMADI, Iraq, Nov. 26 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugee António Guterres on Wednesday travelled to the Iraqi city of Ramadi, where he announced his agency will soon open an office - one of 14 expected to be operational in the country by early 2009.
"We are now expanding our presence inside Iraq," Guterres told some 20 officials from Anbar Province and Ramadi municipality as well as tribal leaders. "We will have a presence in 14 governorates by early next year, including here in Ramadi."
Guterres, on his third visit to Iraq in 18 months, noted that the UN refugee agency already has a presence in 10 of the country's 18 governorates and will soon open four more. He said the expanded UNHCR presence reflected a decision to place more focus on preparations for the possible eventual return home of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
At the same time, the agency will continue its assistance and protection operations for Iraqi refugees in the region, particularly in Syria and Jordan.
"We have a lot of work to do with the Iraqi government to build on what's already been done to get the proper conditions in place for the voluntary and sustainable return of refugees in safety and dignity," Guterres said of the stepped-up UNHCR presence. He said those conditions included increased efforts for property restitution and compensation for returnees, as well as ensuring essential infrastructure such as schools, medical facilities, employment opportunities and delivery of assistance.
The increased UNHCR focus on humanitarian work inside Iraq coincides with an improved security situation in the country and an increasing number of uprooted people going home. Between June and October, some 140,000 people - most of them internally displaced - went back to their places of origin.
Guterres also noted that UNHCR's budget for operations inside Iraq would double next year to some US$81 million.
The chairman of Anbar's Provincial Council, Abdul Salam Al-Ani, said officials were extremely pleased with the High Commissioner's announcement of the opening of a new office in Ramadi. He also thanked Guterres for an offer of more assistance to some of the most vulnerable of the estimated 11,000 internally displaced families in Anbar.
Daniel Endres, UNHCR's Baghdad-based representative in Iraq, said the opening of the Ramadi office would "open a new chapter" in the agency's efforts to aid uprooted people in the region.
By Ron Redmond in Ramadi, Iraq