The United Nations refugee agency opened its annual top level meeting today with a reaffirmation of its commitment to Iraq, where most international staff have been temporarily withdrawn, and a pledge to work closely with local authorities to help hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis eventually return home.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) "cannot operate from a fortress" despite the 19 August attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people and put on hold the agency's plans to repatriate some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and 800,000 internally displaced people, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers told the 54th session of the 64-member Executive Committee (ExCom) in Geneva.
"Our strength lies in our ability to communicate with the people who need us, to work through local authorities, and to build up local capacities. If we cannot work with the Iraqi people and with Iraqi authorities, then we cannot work there at all," Mr. Lubbers said.
Outlining UNHCR’s operations around the world, he lauded as “truly exceptional” the repatriation of more than 2 million people to Afghanistan last year. Meanwhile, the returns to Angola were “an opportunity to put an end to yet another of Africa’s biggest and most protracted crises of displacement.” But he stressed that those positive developments must be sustained by continued donor and government support.
He welcomed the "marked improvement" in Liberia and the "positive momentum towards peace" in southern Sudan, but expressed concern over the ongoing fighting in north-western Sudan that has driven some 65,000 people into neighbouring Chad.
Also worrying, he said, was the plight of those who had left the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) "illegally" for China, where UNHCR has been denied access to them for years.
Mr. Lubbers also announced plans to find durable solutions for over 100,000 Bhutanese people in Nepal's camps. UNHCR will promote self-reliance projects for those who wish to settle in Nepal, support resettlement for vulnerable cases, and insist on the right of return for those who wish to go back on their own, but it will not promote repatriation because it has been denied access to Bhutan and cannot monitor the return.
He proposed a two-pronged approach to help Chechens under pressure to leave the neighbouring Caucasus region of Ingushetia. The displaced Chechens must continue to be guaranteed a viable safe haven in Ingushetia until they decide that conditions are conducive for them to return home. For those who wish to return, UNHCR will start projects in Chechnya to enable sustainable reintegration, he added.
He also appealed to ExCom members for $56 million in unfunded contributions towards the 2003 Annual Budget, and presented the 2004 Annual Budget for approval, explaining that the proposed sum of $995 million was significantly higher than in recent years because many of the activities that had been funded through supplementary budgets were being absorbed into next year's Annual Budget.