UNHCR says Iraq still volatile, says no rush to return refugees
BAGHDAD, July 4 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday warned that the situation in Iraq was still too volatile for a large-scale return of refugees from abroad. The agency said it had asked countries hosting Iraqis to extend by at least one month a moratorium on forcible returns of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers to their country.
The agency said its team led by Special Envoy Dennis McNamara was in Iraq reviewing the situation on the ground to be able to advise governments on the feasibility of returns. It said the team's preliminary assessment showed that the situation in many parts of the country was highly volatile, and that Iraqis abroad were still in need of a sanctuary.
Last March, in the run-up to the US-led war on Iraq, UNHCR recommended that governments suspend decisions on the Iraqis' asylum claims, institute temporary protection for all Iraqis abroad, and hold deportations of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers for an initial three month period.
Some have already done so. The Dutch government decided in early June that it would extend its moratorium on decisions and return of rejected cases until February 2004.
Reiterating its concerns about Iraq, UNHCR cited a dangerous security environment in many parts of the country and a high incidence of violent crime. It also mentioned an almost total dependence of the Iraqi population on food aid, and the absence of functioning legal and judicial structures.
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers plans to travel to Iraq in mid-July to review the situation in the country during a visit that will take him to Baghdad as well as areas of northern and southern Iraq. The trip will also include meetings with officials in Kuwait and Jordan.
Officials in neighbouring countries fear that some Iraqi refugees may opt to try to cross borders on their own unless arrangements can be made with the Iraqi side to enable the most anxious of the refugees to go back home.
Several thousand Iraqis are already believed to have returned spontaneously from neighbouring countries.
Iraq itself hosts some 110,000 refugees, mainly Palestinians, but also large groups of Iranian and Turkish refugees as well as other nationalities. Some of them, most notably Palestinians, have reported security problems since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime.
There are up to four million Iraqis abroad, including some one million asylum seekers, refugees and other Iraqis under UNHCR's protection mainly in neighbouring countries. The UN refugee agency believes that of these, some 500,000 may seek to return home with its help once the situation inside Iraq improves.