The UN’s top refugee official has proposed a government-led plan of action to enable thousands of displaced Iraqis to return to their homes in the Middle Eastern country.
“The plan should have clear targets to address the security, property and reintegration issues that would allow people to return in safety and in dignity,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said today, at the end of a three-day visit to Iraq, referring to both Iraqis displaced abroad and inside the country.
During the visit, Mr Guterres – who heads the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – met with President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He also held talks with the designated chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policy, Iyad Allawi.
Mr. Guterres proposed the plan of action during meetings with the leaders. He said he was encouraged by the concern expressed by government officials over incidents of violence targeting Iraqi minorities; and he also welcomed the formation in December of the new Iraqi coalition government after months of political deadlock.
“This new government represents an enormous opportunity for Iraq, but also for our work,” the UN refugee chief said. “I hope today we are marking the beginning of the end of the displacement chapter in Iraq.”
Almost 200,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees with UNHCR, mainly in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Additionally, UNHCR estimates there are around 1.3 million internally displaced Iraqis, with 500,000 of them living in extremely precarious conditions.
“These people are living in dramatic circumstances. They are homeless or living in slums and feel a high level of despair,” said Mr. Guterres. “We need to provide more humanitarian assistance to the most needy groups.”
The proposed plan of action, which UNHCR would help implement, should also include a strategy for people displaced within Iraq to integrate in the areas they sought refuge if they preferred to remain where they are, the UN High Commissioner said, stressing that any returns should be voluntary.
While in Iraq, the refugee chief visited the Um Al-Baneen camp in central Baghdad, where 112 internally displaced Iraqi families live in dilapidated former military buildings. He welcomed a decision by the government to suspend their eviction until a solution can be found to relocate the families, many of whom lack documentation and have no source of income.
UNHCR has prioritized shelter projects in Iraq, having funded the building or reconstruction of 20,000 two-bedroom homes in areas affected by conflict across the country to date.
Guterres noted that while the numbers of Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries had gone down, their vulnerability had been rising. UNHCR's registration database of Iraqi refugees shows that 34 per cent of them were considered to be vulnerable, including thousands of people with critical health conditions and a significant number of female-headed households.
The majority of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan fled more than three years ago. Many have found it hard to find work, making them reliant on dwindling savings and the support offered by international organizations and local aid groups. One of the consequences of their poverty is that a growing number of refugee children have left school to find casual work to help feed their families.
While almost 90,000 Iraqi refugees have returned to their country in the past three years, the rate of return has slowed recently and new asylum-seekers continue to register with UNHCR in neighbouring countries. More than 456,000 internally displaced Iraqis returned to their areas of origin between January 2008 and December 2010.