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UNHCR:  Conditions in Iraq Not Yet Suitable for Return of Refugees

The U.N. Refugee Agency has said conditions are not yet right for the return of hundreds-of-thousands of Iraqis who sought asylum in other countries while Saddam Hussein was in power. The agency said it is prepared to help the refugees go home once the situation in Iraq settles down.

Most Iraqis who fled their country did so to escape persecution under the Saddam Hussein regime. About 200,000 of them are in neighboring Iran. Many fled there during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and have lived in Iran ever since.

The Iranian government said about 48,000 of the Iraqis live in refugee camps, while the rest have become integrated into Iranian communities. U.N. refugee spokesman Rupert Colville said many Iraqi refugees, including some outside the camps, want to go home.

"So, I think the Iranians are very concerned that they will get frustrated if they are not able to go home soon. And, that will cause a problem in Iran. But, I think everyone agrees, including the UNHCR, that the best way to go about this is to have a well-organized repatriation operation, probably phased, not too sudden, as soon as conditions allow. We have not quite reached that point yet," Mr. Colville said.

Iranian authorities recently accused the United States and Britain of delaying the return of tens-of-thousands of Iraqi refugees. Mr. Colville said the coalition is concerned that a sudden disorganized return of thousands of refugees could further destabilize Iraq.

A statement issued by the State Department notes that the United States supports well-ordered returns at the earliest possible date.

Mr. Colville said the U.N. refugee agency has drawn up plans to repatriate about 500,000 Iraqi refugees.

But he said it is too soon to begin this operation now. "Obviously, the number one concern is the security situation. You do not want people going back into a dangerous situation. Then there are some very complicated issues about property. Some refugees have been outside the country for many, many years. Quite a few in Iran left 20 years ago or more. There are similar issues for people displaced inside Iraq, let alone the refugees outside. This is going to be very difficult. It is one of the most difficult issues refugees face when it is a long-standing situation," Mr. Colville explained.

European governments also are eager for Iraqi refugees living in their countries to go home. Two weeks ago, European officials said they were making plans to repatriate about 250,000 Iraqi refugees. But they have agreed to postpone the returns until conditions in Iraq were safer.