x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

UN: stop forcing Iraqis home

Head of UN refugee agency urges the international community to stop forceable returns of Iraqis to Baghdad.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees chief, Antonio Guterres, meets refugees during a visit to the organisation's head office in Duma, 20 km north of Damascus.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees chief, Antonio Guterres, meets refugees during a visit to the organisation's head office in Duma, 20 km north of Damascus.

Damascus // The head of the United Nations' refugee agency has urged the international community to stop forceable returns of Iraqis to Baghdad, warning that the crisis facing Iraq and its people is far from over. In hard-edged remarks made yesterday, Antonio Guterres, the UNHCR's high commissioner, said conditions in Iraq could not yet sustain a return of refugees. Citing a lack of security, failures to achieve political reconciliation and a shortage of basic services, he said a "lot of work" needed to be done before exiles could be expected to go home.

Mr Guterres condemned the policies of western nations - and some Arab states - which have been expelling Iraqi asylum seekers or refusing them entry, contrasting that with Syria's "generous" open door policy for Iraqis fleeing violence. "Syria has been hosting a large number of Iraqis with a huge impact on the economy and society, paying a heavy price for its generosity," he said at a media conference in Damascus. "It is doing so without harassing them, without pushing them back and this is an example that should be followed everywhere.

"Unfortunately some countries are trying to force Iraqis back to Baghdad which, in the present circumstances, is against our advice." Britain, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden have all been trying to deport Iraq asylum seekers who have not been officially accepted as refugees there. 42 Iraqis were expelled from the UK last week and flown to Baghdad airport. Many have since claimed they were physically abused by British security officials in the process, allegations the UN is investigating.

Britain denies any wrongdoing and said all 42 had been allowed to appeal to the courts against deportation, but had seen their cases rejected. The British prime minister, David Cameron, defended the policy of forceable returns, saying UK troops had died to free Iraq and that it was now safe enough for refugees to go home. However, speaking on World Refugee Day, Mr Guterres rejected that position and said that Iraqis could not be expected to return until political reconciliation had taken place in Baghdad - the only long term solution, he said, to persistent violence and instability.

With a new government yet to be formed, and with a recent surge in attacks - including two suicide bombs yesterday that killed 26 people - there is little prospect of that happening soon. Until it does, the UN refugee chief called on the world to provide Iraqi asylum seekers with the help they need. "I appeal to the international community not to consider that this is a problem that is solved and to engage in more meaningful support to the refugees themselves and the host countries that are paying such a high price for their hospitality," Mr Guterres said.

As well as sustained financial aid, the UNHCR high commissioner urged the West to offer more resettlement options for Iraqis, and to speed up the process by which refugees are moved to their new homes once their cases have been approved. The United Nations in Syria this week submitted its 100,000th Iraqi for resettlement in the West. The woman in question, who fled her home in 2007 after her husband and school-aged son were killed near Fallujah, sat next to Mr Guterres as he made his comments.

Identified only as Maysoon, she and her two daughters - one of them was shot twice but survived - have been accepted for resettlement in Canada. Of those 100,000 put forward for resettlement, fewer than 53,000 have actually moved. The process typically takes many months to complete. According to the most recent UN statistics, Iraqis continue to register as asylum seekers in Syria. Between May and the start of the year, 8,782 new refugees have been added to UN rolls, far outstripping the number who leave. Almost 166,000 Iraqis are recognised as refugees by the UNHCR in Damascus, although the Syrian authorities insist the real number is far higher.

A clear majority are Sunni Arabs from Baghdad, a city that was, to a large extent, ethnically divided in the sectarian civil war of 2005 to 2007. In addition to his criticism of the international community's response to the Iraq refugee problem, Mr Guterres said the Iraqi authorities needed to "do more". "My opinion is not only that the Iraqi government engages in support for the refugee communities outside the country but also to engages in a meaningful and effective programme to prepare for voluntary return of Iraqis to their homeland," he said.

"That depends on security, and security requires an effective reconciliation but it also depends on a lot of other work preparing the measures necessary to make repatriation sustainable: property restitution, compensation, integration of basic services like education and health and public distribution systems." @Email:psands@thenational.ae