UNHCR starts planning for eventual return of Iraqi refugees
GENEVA, April 25 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency today unveiled a preliminary plan for the eventual return and reintegration of up to 500,000 Iraqi refugees. At the same time, the agency said it would continue to be prepared should new refugees decide to flee insecurity in Iraq.
"Return and reintegration will be among the major challenges in post-conflict Iraq," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond, announcing the plan at a press briefing in Geneva Friday.
"Along with the rapid changes now taking place in Iraq, UNHCR is shifting its primary focus from contingency preparations for a possible refugee influx into neighbouring states to laying the groundwork for the eventual return of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees," he added.
UNHCR's preliminary repatriation and reintegration plan has been designed for up to 500,000 Iraqi refugees, out of an estimated 900,000 now in the immediate region and beyond.
Redmond stressed that repatriation to Iraq can only happen when the political climate is right and the environment conducive for voluntary return, adding that this is unlikely to happen soon but that UNHCR must be ready to act when the time comes.
"At the same time, we still need to be prepared for any possible outflow from Iraq, where continuing insecurity and the fragile religious and ethnic tensions could yet result in new displacement," he cautioned. "So for the time being, we will maintain our current levels of readiness in neighbouring countries."
The UN refugee agency has so far committed less than $30 million to those preparations, primarily stockpiles and equipment that can eventually be used inside Iraq or elsewhere, as needed.
The budget for the preliminary repatriation and reintegration plan - $118 million over eight months - is still within the levels of UNHCR's existing Iraq emergency budget of $154 million. The agency's work will be part of the overall UN humanitarian effort in Iraq under the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator.
UNHCR's preliminary plan covers such sectors as shelter, domestic needs, protection, legal assistance and monitoring, as well as transport and logistics for returnees. It contains planning figures for numbers of possible returnees; identifies the benchmarks that need to be in place before organised returns begin; describes potential obstacles; and defines the agency's role under its international mandate to provide solutions for refugees.
The planning figure of 500,000 possible returnees is based on several groups. Of the 212,000 Iraqi refugees living in neighbouring countries, mainly Iran (where there are 202,000), UNHCR estimates approximately 165,000 could eventually return home. Another 183,000 Iraqis live in industrialised countries, where most of them are well integrated and might be reluctant to go back to Iraq at this stage. Nevertheless, the UNHCR plan provides support for the possible return of about 35,000 of them.
There are also some 84,000 Iraqi asylum seekers in various countries and the plan assumes that about three-quarters of them - about 60,000 - will repatriate. Finally, there are approximately 450,000 Iraqis who never formally sought asylum but who lived in refugee-like situations - mostly in Jordan and Syria. The planning figure projects that 50 to 60 percent of these people (or about 240,000) could eventually go home.
"While there will undoubtedly be people returning on their own before stability and security are in place, UNHCR will only support return when some basic principles are met," said Redmond, adding that these benchmarks include the ability to provide for the physical, material and legal safety and well-being of the returnees.
Under its preliminary plan, UNHCR has stated that the authorities in Iraq must be able to assure the returnees' physical safety, including an end to violence and insecurity and the establishment of operational law enforcement institutions. In the early phases of return, the returnees must have access to means of survival and basic services like potable water, food and health services. Over the longer term, measures must be put in place to ensure sustainable reintegration. Returnees must also have redress for human rights violations, non-discrimination and unhindered access to justice.
The refugee agency has also emphasised that returns must be voluntary and conducted in a safe and dignified manner, and that the special protection needs of vulnerable persons must be met. UNHCR must be given unhindered access to returnees at all stages of the return process.
UNHCR will focus largely on its traditional protection and legal activities, including complicated property issues and the physical and legal protection of particularly vulnerable groups.
Elaborating on the scope of the agency's work in Iraq, Redmond said that although the plan does not address the needs of internally displaced people, UNHCR's experience in places like the Balkans has shown that in situations of post-war recovery in ethnically diverse areas, many of the problems faced by returning refugees are also shared by internally displaced people.
"In such cases," Redmond said, "UNHCR has provided protection and assistance to both groups and could do the same in Iraq, where many refugees and internally displaced people originate from the same areas, were forced out of their homes for similar reasons and are likely to face similar problems upon return."
"We're already preparing for repatriation, but there's still a long way to go," he cautioned, adding that the preliminary plan for return and reintegration does not change UNHCR's earlier appeal for governments to temporarily halt any forced returns of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers.