UN revises its guidelines for Iraqi refugees

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that Iraq is safer, so it is no longer recommending that Iraqis who leave get automatic refugee status. A press release from UNHCR says:

The improved security situation in Iraq, particularly the southern governorates and Al-Anbar governorate, has allowed UNHCR to revise its guidelines on eligibility for Iraqi asylum seekers for the first time since the end of 2007. UNHCR previously advised that all Iraqis from the central and southern governorates should be considered refugees – unless they are in categories, such as those who have committed war crimes, who are specifically excluded. Now UNHCR believes the international protection needs of those originating from Al-Anbar and the southern governorates should be individually assessed.

UNHCR will continue to recommend special consideration for certain groups, such as

members of religious and ethnic minorities; public officials; Iraqis perceived as opposing armed groups or political factions; Iraqis affiliated with the multinational forces or foreign companies; certain professionals; media workers; UN and NGO workers; human rights activists; and homosexuals.

It also names particular areas in Iraq where there are still problems, and recommends refugee status for Iraqis leaving there. And UNHCR does not recommend mass returns to Iraq at this point.

The Washington Post reports on the UNHCR’s change of policy here.  And here’s an odd little thing that goes by without explanation:

Some of the 1.5 million Iraqis living outside their country, which descended into sectarianism after U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003, should now be able to return safely, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said.

One and a half million Iraqi refugees, hmm? Since I began reading about Iraqi refugees, the number has always been stated as two million. Just a couple of weeks ago I reported that the Iraqi government is compiling statistics on how many displaced Iraqis there actually are. And I wrote:

The longstanding estimate is that 2 million Iraqis have left the country. They are not counting internally displaced people, but that number has been estimated at 2.5 million. I generally hold to the rule that reality is never as bad as estimates and media reports in any area (such as environmental problems), but occasionally wartime figures turn out worse than estimated. If I had to bet, I’d place my money on the not-as-bad scenario. There are always reasons to inflate numbers and few incentives to deflate them.

And now, mysteriously, the two million number has been reduced by 25 percent. I hope somebody explains what happened. Perhaps 500,000 refugees have returned, but I don’t think so.

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