Deputy High Commissioner on Iraq mission
Deputy High Commissioner L. Craig Johnstone is in Iraq today as part of a five-day mission to review UNHCR's operations for returnees, refugees and internally displaced people and for a series of meetings with Iraqi officials. He arrived in Baghdad Sunday evening and had a day of meetings with government officials yesterday (Monday). Today, Mr. Johnstone is scheduled to visit settlements for internally displaced Iraqis around Baghdad.
His meetings yesterday included talks with Iraqi Vice President Tarek Al-Hashimi; the Minister of Human Rights; and the Minister for Migration and Displacement. Mr. Johnstone acknowledged the improvement in security inside Iraq and described the situation as much healthier compared to his last visit two years ago. He also urged the Iraqi government to engage more with Iraqi refugees outside of Iraq and to include them in national reconciliation efforts. While the government had quite naturally focused in the last few years on the situation inside the country, it was now time to increase contacts with refugee communities outside Iraq and to begin fostering a climate of confidence in the future in terms of security, political assurances and protection. This in turn would help pave the way for eventual voluntary return. But we are not there yet, Johnstone said, noting that there are still pockets of insecurity and continuing uncertainty among some refugee populations.
The Deputy High Commissioner also commended the Iraqi government for implementing a compensation package for returnees and internally displaced families. He stressed, however, that much more needs to be done as there will not be a solution to the Iraqi situation as a whole until the plight of displaced people and refugees has been resolved. The provision of land for returnees and more funds are essential, Johnstone said, noting that UNHCR had increased its funding for programs inside Iraq in 2009 to US $178 million.
Mr. Johnstone stressed the importance of providing shelter in order to prepare the ground for return of refugees and internally displaced. Since July 2008, UNHCR and its Iraqi partners have rehabilitated some 5,000 homes for returnees and internally displaced people, with another 20,000 planned by the end of 2009. The Deputy High Commissioner pledged that UNHCR will help in every way it can, particularly with respect to shelter because we accept the notion that people cannot return if they do not have safety and a home to return to. Protection and shelter are priorities for UNHCR.
Mr. Johnstone also praised the generosity of neighboring countries hosting Iraqi refugees, particularly Jordan and Syria. There are still well over 1.5 million Iraqis outside the country - mostly in Syria and Jordan - and another 2 million internally displaced.