Iraq: Repatriations from notorious Syria camp ‘an example for the world’
UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Thursday praised Iraq for repatriating its citizens from camps in northeast Syria holding people suspected of having ties to ISIL extremists, urging other governments “to take responsibility and to act”.
The UN chief was speaking to journalists following a visit to the Jeddah Rehabilitation Centre in northern Iraq, where he met returnees from the notorious Al-Hol camp, whose residents are mainly women and children under 12.
UN chief @antonioguterres in in northern #Iraq where he visited returnees repatriated from #Syria's notorious Al-Hol camp https://t.co/6UCkQKlDiQ
“Iraq is demonstrating with enormous commitment that responsible repatriations are possible, by finding dignified solutions anchored in the principles of both accountability and reintegration. And it is working. I witnessed it today,” he said.
Dire conditions, potential risks
Mr. Guterres - a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees who has visited camps across the globe – was certain that Al-Hol is “the worst camp that exists in today’s world”, noting that people have been stranded there for years and in the worst possible conditions.
He said detainees have been deprived of their rights, and are vulnerable and marginalized, and remain trapped in a desperate situation with no end in sight.
“They deserve a path out. This is a matter of human decency and compassion – and it is a matter of security,” he said.
“Because the longer we let this untenable situation fester, the more resentment and despair will grow, and the greater the risks to security and stability. We must prevent the legacy of yesterday’s fight from fueling tomorrow’s conflict.”
A complex issue
The Secretary-General commended the Iraqi Government for its efforts, which he called “an example for the world”, though recognizing that repatriation is an extremely complex, challenging and sensitive issue.
He appealed to countries that have nationals in Al-Hol camp and elsewhere to “significantly step up their efforts” toward the safe and dignified return of these persons.
“They need to follow the example of Iraq,” said Mr. Guterres. “All countries with their citizens in Al-Hol must do the same, and must do the same in a dignified repatriation in line with applicable international law, and in the case of children, guided by the principles of the best interests of children.”
Support for reintegration
Mr. Guterres said the returnees he met at the rehabilitation centre want to reintegrate into their communities and societies.
He encouraged the Iraqi authorities to continue working towards their accelerated community-based reintegration, noting that most are under the age of 18.
The Secretary-General underlined the UN’s full commitment and support for what he called “this vital effort”.
Visit to the Kurdistan region
The Secretary-General later travelled to the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, where he expressed thanks for assistance provided in the aftermath of the recent deadly earthquakes in Syria and Türkiye.
The UN chief also highlighted the possibility of progress in the country.
“In my opinion we are now facing an opportunity for Iraq and an opportunity for the Kurdistan region of Iraq,” he told journalists.
“That opportunity can translate itself into reality if Iraqis are able to come together and unite and if people in this region can also come together and unite.”
Translate commitment to reality
Mr. Guterres said he had held “fruitful meetings” with the region’s President, Nechirvan Barzani, and other senior leaders in Erbil, where they discussed relations with Baghdad.
He noted that several issues require agreement, including the federal budget, oil and gas legislation, and implementation of a security and stability accord known as the Sinjar Agreement.
“But in my discussions both here and in Baghdad, I sensed a genuine commitment to move forward and I urge all to translate this commitment into reality,” he said.
Elections and escalation fears
The UN chief also encouraged Kurdistan’s political leaders to work together to ensure delayed parliamentary elections will be held this year, and to put the interests of the people first, despite their differences.
He also addressed instability in the wider geographic region.
“Full respect for the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and good neighbourliness is essential at all times,” he said. “I urge all to pursue dialogue and diplomacy and exercise maximum restraint to prevent further instability and contain the risks of regional escalation.”
Progress is possible
Mr. Guterres emphasized that his visit to Iraq was one of solidarity and hope - a message he had expressed shortly after arriving in the country the previous day.
“But achieving a better tomorrow requires action today. It demands determined diplomacy, constructive dialogue – and the courage to make the necessary compromises. After my meetings and discussions, I am convinced that important progress is now entirely possible,” he said.
After leaving Iraq, the Secretary-General will head to Qatar where he will attend the fifth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, which opens on Saturday in the capital, Doha.