UN official urges greater support for global refugee operations

Assistant High Commissioner Erika Feller

13 November 2007 – A senior official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today called on countries to increase their support for the agency’s efforts to protect nearly 33 million refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asylum-seekers worldwide.

Erika Feller, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, particularly highlighted the needs of the more than 4.4 million Iraqis that have left their homes, which she described as “probably the biggest refugee problem we have at the current time.”

Speaking to reporters in New York, she pointed out that UNHCR is assisting some 2.2 million Iraqis who are displaced internally, as well as the more than 2.2 million who have fled to neighbouring countries, including Syria and Jordan.

“There are a number of components of this operation which give us serious reason for concern and are quite a challenge for us and our partners to address,” Ms. Feller stated, including difficulties faced by Iraqi women, who make up the majority of the refugee population, as well as the high rate of detention of Iraqi asylum seekers in Lebanon.

She noted in particular the resurgence of problems such as “weekend marriages,” in which young girls are made available for a traditional marriage ceremony for a couple of days for men who are prepared to pay for that marriage, and are then divorced by the end of the weekend. While not formally considered prostitution, this arrangement is “basically survival sex” in the absence of other forms of income, she stated.

Another concern is the “narrowing protection space” in host countries, Ms. Feller said, noting that while countries have opened their doors to fleeing Iraqis, “those doors are now closing.” This is in part due to restrictive visa regimes, which make entry into countries and renewal of short-term visas difficult to obtain.

Despite the difficulties faced by Iraqi refugees, she said that UNHCR is not promoting repatriation back to Iraq at this time, but would facilitate the return of individuals who decided to return. “It’s our sense that the security situation is still such that it’s not able to sustain a return except perhaps of individuals who choose to go back and having something to go back to.”

In addition, she pointed out that an underreported element of the Iraqi crisis is that Iraq itself has been a host country for refugees fleeing other nations, including some 13,000 Palestinians who reside inside Iraq, as well as many who are stuck in the “no-man’s land” between Iraq and Syria.

Needs relating to resettlement, the process of transferring people from a host country to a third country for more permanent stay, remains high, she noted, urging more States to come forward to offer locations for resettlement.

She also highlighted the need for increased funding for UNHCR’s activities, noting that a number of operations are well funded because they are high on the agenda of certain States or receive media attention, while others are under-funded because they are not in the spotlight.

Examples of under-funded operations include the agency’s programme to repatriate some 60,000 Mauritanians living in Senegal back to their homeland, as well as assistance to refugees taken in by Yemen, which she said has generously opened its doors to boatloads of people arriving on its shores on a daily basis.

In response to a question about the recent attempt of a French non-governmental organization (NGO) to remove more than 100 young children from Chad, Ms. Feller said the lesson learned from that incident was “not to take all goodwill NGOs at face value.”

She called the actions of the NGO in question, Arche de Zoe, “deplorable” and said UNHCR was currently involved with other UN agencies to assist the children, register them and trace their families.

In a related development, UNHCR reported today that Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone visited the 103 children – aged between one and 10 years old – at an orphanage in the eastern Chadian town of Abéché on Saturday.

Mr. Johnston urged that the 82 boys and 21 girls be urgently reunited with their families. “The children are being well cared for, but it was very painful and obvious to see that they are really missing their families and need to be returned to them as rapidly as possible so they don’t become further traumatized by the deeply troubling circumstances of their alleged attempted removal to France,” he said.

The children are being cared for by a Chadian group known as Action Sociale, UNHCR, the Chadian Red Cross, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and local volunteers.

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