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UN refugee agency goes ahead with projects in Iraq despite the odds

UN refugee agency goes ahead with projects in Iraq despite the odds

On 19th August 2003, a bomb exploded at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 staff. The UN suspended all operations in Iraq and evacuated its international personnel out of the country. A year later, UNHCR takes stock of its work in Iraq.
19 August 2004
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at a ceremony in Geneva on the first anniversary of the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

AMMAN, Aug. 19 (UNHCR) - In early August 2003, just three months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, UNHCR had nine offices set up all over Iraq. The refugee agency was preparing for the return of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi refugees from abroad. Staff all over the country were working to assist displaced people and refugees alike.

All this changed on the afternoon of 19th August, when a bomb exploded at the UN headquarters in Baghdad's Canal Hotel. Twenty-two United Nations colleagues were killed. Within days, UNHCR evacuated 38 international staff and temporarily relocated its offices in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

UNHCR's Yacoub El Hillo was on his way to Baghdad on 19th August. He should have been there that morning, but administrative matters had unexpectedly delayed his arrival. "Until this day, it is difficult to recover from that blow," he says. "I was lucky that day, but now, I still mourn those who were not."

On the first anniversary of the bombing, the United Nations is holding a memorial service for the victims in Geneva today. High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers and UNHCR staff were joining UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and other colleagues at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva at a ceremony to remember fallen colleagues. The dead included Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary General's special representative to Iraq and a former UNHCR assistant high commissioner.

In a message issued on Thursday, Kofi Annan said that following the Baghdad incident and the fact the UN is now a terrorist target, the UN is grappling with a fundamental question: "Our work is with people. We must be able to get to them, and they must be able to get to us. How do we balance this need for openness with security in today's world?"

Today, Yacoub El Hillo is UNHCR's head of Iraqi operations. A year later, he and his international team are still based in Amman, organising the agency's humanitarian work in Iraq by remote. Working away from the actual area of operation is an unusual situation for the staff in Amman, and it presents enormous challenges.

"Even though circumstances forced us to be outside the country, we have remained very much engaged, from a distance and through our support teams on the ground," says El Hillo. "But what was clear, the complexity of the situation inside Iraq prompted the UN to be humble and to seek new creative ways of continuing to make a difference in the life of the Iraqis."

On the ground, UNHCR relies on national Iraqi staff, as well as NGOs, to implement its projects. The difficulties and dangers of working in Iraq remain considerable, despite all the odds and severe security constraints, UNHCR has been forging ahead with its work to help refugees, and has signed agreements with various partners to start reintegration projects that would address the needs of the returnees and returning internally displaced persons, or IDPs, in the north and south, where security was less of an issue than in the centre. Up to a million Iraqis are estimated to be displaced in their own country, while several million Iraqis (among whom an estimated 500,000 refugees) are still abroad, planning to return at some stage in time.

UNHCR does not encourage Iraqi refugees to return home at the moment because, in consultation with the Iraqi authorities, it does not consider that conditions within Iraq are conducive to receiving large numbers of returning refugees. But it has been helping Iraqi refugees, notably those in neighbouring countries, who want to return without delay. Over 13,500 people have come back to Iraq with UNHCR assistance since last year from Iran, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Housing is one of the biggest challenges facing all Iraqi people, and especially those who have just returned to the country or have been internally displaced.

In the north of Iraq alone, where over 20 percent of the people are reported to be lacking adequate housing, UNHCR's reintegration activities are taking place in over 70 locations, benefiting more than 30,000 people. Over 12,000 Iraqis benefit from direct housing support or shelter. In many cases, the returnees themselves help build their own houses, with technical supervision. Others also benefit from reconstruction of basic infrastructure, schools, teachers' houses, the provision of livelihood (seedlings, fertilisers and animals), education, income-generating activities and vocational training.

Together with the International Organization for Migration, UNHCR is assisting the Iraqi Property Claims Commission, set up in January 2004 to deal with claims for property taken illegally, in setting up out-of-country offices for Iraqis abroad wishing to get information on how to address their problems and file claims. Inside Iraq, UNHCR is working very closely with the Iraqi authorities, and has provided input, advice and expertise to help set up the newly created Ministry of Displacement and Migration.

The refugee agency organised specialised training and capacity-building workshops in Amman and Kuwait. Financial and material assistance was provided to allow the Ministry to expand to other parts of the country and increase its qualified staff. Consultants and support staff have been made available to the Ministry, which is attempting to cope with an extremely complex situation with very little lead-time for preparation.

Iraq is home to some 100,000 refugees, mostly Palestinians but also including Iranian Kurds, Syrians and Iranian Arabs, all of whom are being cared for or assisted by UNHCR, where possible in cooperation with the Ministry. But the security constraints make UNHCR's work very difficult. In some parts of the country, monitoring of activities has to be done by remote video tapes. The voluntary repatriation exercise from Iran, ongoing since November of last year, has had to be interrupted on several occasions, and has now been put on hold again.

"Our mission will never be without risk, especially in Iraq. And we have been and will have to be, more than ever, over-cautious." concludes El Hillo who looks forward to the day that the UN can establish international presence all over Iraq again, "But we always keep in mind that we have a mission to accomplish."