UNHCR issues new guidelines on Iraqi asylum seekers
GENEVA, September 27 (UNHCR) - Noting that the security situation in much of Iraq has shown no improvement, indeed has actually deteriorated in many places, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday it is concerned that some states are considering withdrawing the protection previously afforded to all Iraqi asylum seekers.
UNHCR also drew attention to the extremely low recognition rates being accorded to Iraqi asylum seekers by some asylum countries.
The UNHCR comments were part of its latest advisory regarding the return of Iraqis to their homeland. These advisories are issued periodically by the UN refugee agency to provide governments with recommendations and guidance for specific populations and countries.
The advisory notes that despite the January 2005 elections in Iraq, authorities are not yet able to protect citizens from violent attacks, including those specifically targeting civilians in southern and central Iraq. It also says access to basic services needed for a secure and stable life is not guaranteed.
The advisory also warns that premature returns could worsen tensions between residents and returnees, thereby increasing insecurity.
"Thus, UNHCR encourages governments to postpone the introduction of measures which are intended to promote or induce voluntary returns for persons originating from southern or central Iraq," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told a press briefing on Tuesday.
"Security conditions and absorption capacities for sustainable return should be in place before people are returned," he added. "Similarly, for those asylum seekers who are not recognized as refugees, some form of protection in keeping with international human rights principles should be given."
In some European countries, Iraqi asylum seekers have been rejected on the basis of the so-called 'internal flight alternative.'
"Iraqi asylum seekers should not be rejected simply because in theory they could possibly move somewhere else inside Iraq," said Ekber Menemencioglu, UNHCR's Director for Central and South-West Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. "Relocation elsewhere can be very risky because of the security constraints in many areas in Iraq. National protection as well as basic services and facilities - and in particular housing - are absent in many places, especially for those without any family or community links."
UNHCR said it has slightly adjusted its position towards return to three of the northern governorates - Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk and Erbil - where acts of violence are far less frequent by comparison with much of the rest of the country, and a certain level of political stability has been achieved despite the fragile economy and security. UNHCR said it now deems the promotion of voluntary return for Iraqis originating from these three northern governorates to be feasible, provided the returnees have family and community links that can ensure their access to protection, housing and other basic services.
While not ruling out the involuntary return of some asylum seekers from these three provinces, if they have been rejected in a proper procedure, the advisory encourages states to proceed with caution, especially with regard to the concerns of the central government and local authorities, as well as the region's limited capacity to absorb returnees.
"UNHCR strongly encourages states not to forcibly return rejected asylum seekers to the three northern governorates if they do not originate from there," said Menemencioglu. "Even if they were admitted - which is by no means certain - they would nevertheless have little or no chance of slotting in to the local community or of obtaining legal residence, accommodation and employment. Even worse, without any local support system, they might well be at risk physically."
It is estimated that between 2003 and 2005, more than 253,000 people returned to Iraq, most of them spontaneously. A total of 23,074 Iraqis chose to return voluntarily from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries with assistance from UNHCR. However, because of the security situation, the agency has never promoted returns to any part of Iraq.
It has been estimated that more than 1.2 million people may currently be displaced inside Iraq - many of them sheltering in public buildings.
Other estimates suggest that perhaps 1.5 million Iraqis are still living outside their home country, as refugees or migrants. Many of these would like to return but have not been able to for various reasons - security and lack of housing being the major ones.
In 2002, just prior to the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, Iraqis were the top group of asylum seekers arriving in industrialized countries. Since then, the great majority of those leaving Iraq appear to have remained in neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Syria, and to a lesser extent Lebanon.