UN releases odd report on Iraqi refugees

The UN this week released its  “Regional Response Plan for Iraqi Refugees 2010.” The link is to the executive summary, where there is a link to the entire 99-page report (which I have not read).  Why do I call it odd? A few things:

1) The numbers given are an order of magnitude below the actual figures:

The number of registered refugees and asylum seekers has been roughly constant, with a slight decrease to 294,148 as of October 2009.

The usual number given is 2 million or so. The disparity is explained by the word “registered.” So the UN doesn’t deal with those who haven’t registered? That’s not the impression normally given. So the other numbers are also way off. But the report, or at least the executive summary, doesn’t mention this disparity.

 Though substantial numbers have been resettled – nearly 18,000 in 2008 and an equal number in the first nine months of 2009 – resettlement will, by its nature, be a solution only for a minority of refugees.

Glad they admit that. A couple of years  ago some reports gave the impression that all the Iraqi refugees needed to be resettled, preferably in the United States because it was our fault they were refugees.

2) The terrible problems previously reported in the countries where the refugees had gone seem to have disappeared, not only from the present but also from the past:

Governments in the region continue their generous tradition of hospitality, despite strains on national resources and infrastructure.

Maybe that’s Arab-speak. Arabs are said to be ultra-polite and roundabout in their way of speaking (unless they’re speaking about Jews, of course). Maybe it really means “Governments in the region have tried to get rid of these refugees but haven’t been able to so they’re accepting aid to help support them.” Actually, it has been a burden, and the refugees have remained, so they have been hospitable in their way. I’ve always wondered, though, why Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Arab countries don’t help support these poor people. However, there have been real changes:

Comparing the situation to that of two years ago, many gains are evident: Iraqis continue to have access to asylum and protection in their neighbouring countries; their risk of detention or deportation for illegal entry has been reduced; and the temporary residency of the majority is condoned in practice if not in law. In most though not all countries, Iraqi refugees have access to public services including education and health care. With donor support, targeted assistance – in the form of food, financial assistance, non-food items, school fees and payment for some medical care and psychological treatment – has provided an essential safety net for the most vulnerable individuals.

What about the future? As I said, the UN has given up on resettlement in third countries as the solution. But it doesn’t see them going home anytime soon.

Though substantial numbers have been resettled – nearly 18,000 in 2008 and an equal number in the first nine months of 2009 – resettlement will, by its nature, be a solution only for a minority of refugees. At the same time, conditions are not yet ripe for a voluntary and sustainable return to Iraq in large numbers. While security inside Iraq has been on a gradual path of improvement, it remains precarious and volatile. Because of this, as well as a deficit in public services and employment opportunities, fewer Iraqi refugees than expected have chosen voluntary repatriation in 2009: approximately 2,400 Iraqi refugees have returned with the assistance of UNHCR, including more than 1,000 who returned from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But there are more.

Many Iraqis who return to Iraq prefer not to seek assistance from UNHCR for their return (and deregister in their respective countries of asylum), in case they later need to again revive their asylum status. According to the UNHCR Representation and government sources inside Iraq, a total of 32,500 Iraqi refugees had returned in 2009, as of October

Actually we have no idea how many have returned. I’m sure many have gone home on their own and haven’t been tracked by the UN or the Iraqi government.

And conditions are not good in the countries where the refugees live, despite all the improvements the report notes.

As the majority remain in legal limbo in their countries of asylum, more and more have depleted their private resources and are dependent upon UN and NGO partners to meet their basic needs. What is more, protection risks due to this destitution are evident: school drop-outs, child labour and even early marriages as coping mechanisms, along with exploitation in the informal labour market and increases in domestic and sexual or gender-based violence.

So would it actually be worse to go back to Iraq? I’ve thought all along that there is pressure among some to keep the refugees out of Iraq just to show the world what terrible human damage President Bush caused. We don’t hear about that now; in fact, that’s no doubt the reason there’s been so little in the media about the Iraq refugees in the past year compared to previous years. It would be good for someone in our government to state unequivocally that our policy is to work with the Iraqi government to help all the refugees to return to decent conditions. That would be Hillary Clinton’s place, I believe, if President Obama thinks the issue beneath his notice.

And that’s the third thing I find odd about the  report. Okay, it’s not that odd considering it’s a UN report, but it’s odd if you’re an ordinary person reading it. It doesn’t emphasize returning the refugees home. And shouldn’t that be the goal?

See our category “Iraqi refugees” for all our posts on the subject.

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