|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES
A recent international meeting held in Geneva from 17 to 18 April had succeeded in raising awareness about the humanitarian needs of those affected by the ongoing violence in Iraq, and had secured vital commitments from members of the global community on providing assistance, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonió Guterres, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon.
Mr. Guterres said that the meeting -- formally known as the International Conference on Addressing the Humanitarian Needs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons inside Iraq and in Neighbouring Countries -- had been organized by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to address the largest displacement problem in the Middle East since 1948, with some 2 million refugees outside Iraq and 1.9 million people displaced inside the country.
The Conference, he noted, had led to a very important commitment from the Iraqi Government to assume its responsibilities in the support of the refugees outside the country. For the first time, Iraq had not only announced a financial commitment of some $25 million in support of refugee communities, but also indicated a clear intention to conduct negotiations with the Governments of the region -- mainly Syria and Jordan -- to improve access and services for refugees. It was also very important to create possibilities for voluntary return of refugees, in conditions of safety and dignity. For that reason, it was necessary to maintain the refugees’ links with their country.
With over 70 countries present, there had also been a clear recognition by the international community of the extreme generosity of the host countries, especially Jordan and Syria, he continued. There were over 1 million Iraqis in Syria and some 750,000 in Jordan, and despite an enormous impact on their own situation, those countries had been accepting the refugees, granting them protection and guaranteeing that they would not be returned to Iraq against their will. That sacrifice needed to be supported by the international community. While the event had not been a pledging conference, there was a clear commitment by the international community to support those countries.
He said the host countries, both in the region and elsewhere, had given a guarantee that Iraqis would continue to be protected and would not be repatriated against their will, especially to central and southern Iraq, until the situation there improved. For its part, the United Nations had clarified the role of various agencies supporting internally displaced persons inside Iraq. From now on, there was a clear division of labour, and an action plan would be defined in the next couple of months. UNHCR, which currently had national staff in several areas of the country, had announced during the Conference that it would upgrade its presence in support of internally displaced persons and establish an international humanitarian presence in Baghdad, as well.
Several countries had committed to increasing the number of resettled Iraqis from the region, he stated. While resettlement was not a solution to the problem, it was important for those in particularly vulnerable situations and for those who were specifically targeted. UNHCR had increased its capacity to refer refugees for resettlement. It intended to refer some 20,000 people in 2007, and hoped that various countries would be able to accept them.
Mr. Guterres also discussed his recent trip to the Sudan, which had enabled him to evaluate UNHCR’s operations there. In southern Sudan, UNHCR had assisted the return of 30,000 refugees in the first four months of 2007, exceeding the total number for 2006. As a result of his visit to eastern Sudan, a decision had been taken to upgrade UNHCR’s operation there in order to guarantee better conditions for over 100,000 Eritrean refugees hosted by the Sudanese. That was one of the most protracted and forgotten refugee situations, with some people staying in refugee camps for decades under extremely difficult circumstances.
A decision had also been made to scale up the UNHCR presence in western Darfur, assuming the coordination of protection and camp management both within the United Nations system and the broader humanitarian community, he added. The kidnapping yesterday of six humanitarian workers in western Darfur illustrated the difficulties faced in that region. The six had been released at the end of the day, but their cars had not been returned.
It was crucial, he stressed, for the international community to be fully engaged, exerting pressure for an effective and comprehensive peace agreement to be established as soon as possible, involving all the parties, including those that had not signed the Abuja Agreement. Without such an agreement, it would be very difficult to ensure security in the region. It was also necessary to support the mediation efforts of the United Nations and the African Union, as well as ensure implementation of the agreement on the “heavy support package” and the establishment of a hybrid force in the Sudan. While the international community had been very successful thus far in improving the humanitarian situation in Darfur, there had been “a total failure” in relation to protection and security.
Responding to several questions about financial contributions for Iraqi refugees, he emphasized, once again, that the event had not been a pledging conference. However, some countries had announced financial contributions. Now that a political commitment was in place, it was necessary to establish mechanisms for both bilateral and multilateral forms of cooperation.
Regarding current refugee flows in Iraq, he said that some 40,000 to 50,000 people were being displaced each month. As for the international presence in Baghdad, it would depend on the ceiling established by the United Nations system.
To another query, he replied that, in Darfur, with the support of non-governmental organizations, school enrolment figures had doubled in the last two or three years. In general, education was one of many concerns in refugee camps. UNHCR’s target was to have all children enrolled in primary education, which, in some cases, was difficult to achieve. The importance of education was emphasized by the fact that, even when given an opportunity, many refugees delayed their return if the education system close to their homes was not functioning.
Responding to several questions about the role of the United States in creating the Iraqi refugee problem, and whether that country had undertaken any commitments in that regard, Mr. Guterres replied that UNHCR was a strictly humanitarian agency, not a political one. What was important at a gathering such as the one that had taken place recently in Geneva was to bring countries together and create conditions to protect refugees and internally displaced persons.
At the same time, he added, the parties directly involved had a particular responsibility in supporting the displaced. For its part, the United States had announced its commitment to providing support to the refugees and host countries, pledging a preliminary amount of some $125 million for those purposes. It had also announced the intention to accept, until 30 June, referrals for some 7,000 Iraqi refugees and increase that figure in the future. Over 2,930 Iraqis had already been referred for resettlement in the United States.
Regarding the situation of Palestinian refugees in Iraq, he said that it had been very difficult to provide protection and find a solution for them. There were some 50,000 Palestinians in Baghdad. They were often targeted, and about 600 had been killed. There were also some Palestinians in camps in the border areas. There had been a proposal to move those people to the territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but Israel had refused permission to do so. Attempts to move them to other parts of the region had also been unsuccessful.
Asked about the Iraqi refugees’ passport situation, he said that that had been one of the key questions addressed at the Conference, with the Iraqi Government expressing readiness to address the issue. The problem was that the Iraqi authorities had recently introduced a new kind of passport, announcing that all other passports were no longer valid. New passports were being issued only in Baghdad. All of a sudden, the passports of over 1 million refugees had become invalid. It was necessary to guarantee the refugees outside the country a legal document, which could also be used for travel.
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