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UNHCR: Iraq Unsafe for Refugee Returns

  • Lisa Schlein

The U.N. refugee agency says it is still too unsafe for refugees to return to Iraq. It says it is not promoting returns to Iraq because conditions in many areas remain dangerous and basic services are largely unavailable. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

More than two million Iraqis have taken refuge in other countries since the conflict began. Most have gone to Syria and Jordan. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society reports between 25,000 and 28,000 Iraqis have returned home since mid-September.

Despite this, U.N. refugee spokesman, William Spindler says his agency does not believe conditions inside Iraq are conducive to large-scale returns. He says the agency, at this time, will neither promote nor facilitate returns to Iraq.

"However, people have a right to return to their country. And, if they feel that they can return, they are the best judges for that. But, in our view, the situation in Iraq is not yet conducive to returning because of the lack of security, the lack of services and so on," said Spindler.

Most of the refugees, about 20,000, have returned to Baghdad. The U.N. refugee agency says some of these people have found their homes occupied upon their return. So, they have become internally displaced within Iraq. Other people, it says have found their property looted or destroyed.

Before leaving Syria, some of the refugees have told aid workers they were going back to Iraq because they believed security had improved. Others said they had run out of money or their visas had expired.

About 1.4 million Iraqi refugees are living in Syria. Spindler says many of the refugees are having a tough time, and a rising number of children and women are forced into prostitution to support their families. He says so-called temporary marriages also are increasing.

"It is a kind of an arrangement that is done by which a family agrees to marry one of their daughters to a man in the full knowledge that this marriage is basically a charade," he said. "It lasts only a weekend and after that the girl is divorced. So, this is a socially acceptable way for the provision of sexual favors. And, it is a form of prostitution."

Spindler says the UNHCR is starting a program in Syria to help particularly needy refugees. He says the agency will provide cash assistance to more than 7,000 families. These families will be issued ATM cards that can be used to withdraw money from a designated private bank.

He says this program is expected to increase rapidly as UNHCR is currently identifying up to 100 new very needy cases each week.