UNHCR's Guterres calls for more support to Iraqi refugees
DAMASCUS, Syria, February 14 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Thursday appealed to the international community for more support to Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan, for more resettlement places in third countries and for the government of Iraq to be more active in supporting its uprooted people.
Guterres, on the third day of a weeklong mission to the region, said his overall objective is to ensure that millions of Iraqis displaced by conflict receive as much protection and assistance as possible.
He said the international response remains disproportionate to the scope of the problem. "The international community needs to provide more support to Iraqis themselves through the programmes that assist Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and other host countries," he said. "Up until now the international assistance has been out of proportion to the challenges that these countries face."
The High Commissioner also asked governments to increase the number of resettlement places for vulnerable refugees. "Some Iraqi families will not be able to go back to their country because they have been tortured or family members were all killed or because of some other situations.... The number of resettlement opportunities for the most vulnerable is very important."
Guterres urged the Iraqi government to reach out to its uprooted population, noting that they were not typical refugees fleeing persecution but, rather, escaping generalized violence.
"They need to feel that their government is supporting them and assisting them in the difficult conditions they are facing today," Guterres said. "My appeal to the Iraqi government is for stronger engagement with Iraqis in Syria and Jordan and with the governments of neighbouring countries."
The High Commissioner met senior leaders in both Jordan and Syria, including Jordanian King Abdullah II and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. He told reporters that he had received assurances from both governments that Iraqi refugees would not be pushed back against their will and that the "asylum space" will be preserved. "This is a very important guarantee," he added, particularly in view of the heavy burden both countries are bearing.
Guterres said UNHCR had clear global criteria on the conditions needed for the voluntary return of refugees. "These criteria are not met by the situation in Iraq now," he added.
"We are not promoting returns to Iraq in the present circumstances because we do not believe the conditions are there for it to be possible on a meaningful scale," he said. "That does not mean we cannot support people to go back if they decide to do so in the present circumstances. In our operations around the world we see that people are willing to go home even in the most dramatic circumstances."
But it was another thing to actively promote returns at this stage, Guterres added. He said UNHCR would propose to the Iraqi government that an assessment be done of the current situation in the country and what steps would need to be taken to create the conditions necessary for any possible future large-scale returns in safety and dignity.
The High Commissioner, who left Damascus for the Syrian town of Aleppo on Thursday evening, has also met top government officials in both countries, talked to refugees and reviewed UNHCR operations. He has sought to assure governments in the region of UNHCR's continued commitment to, and engagement in, efforts to ease the plight of Iraq's displaced.
UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 4.4 million Iraqis are still uprooted, including 2.4 million displaced inside Iraq and 2 million outside - mainly in Syria and Jordan. In addition, more than 41,000 non-Iraqi refugees are in Iraq.
UNHCR this year has appealed for US$261 million for programmes to support the most vulnerable of the uprooted inside and outside Iraq. A total of US$40 million will be for Iraqis displaced inside the country and will also be part of the Consolidated Appeal (CAP) which was launched Tuesday in Baghdad by the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq.
By Ron Redmond in Damascus, Syria