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Iraq Not Ready for Return of Refugees, says UN - 2003-06-18

The U.N. refugee agency says conditions are not right for the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Iraq. The refugee agency is urging countries that are hosting Iraqi refugees to be patient and not send these people back prematurely to a country where their safety cannot yet be guaranteed.

A senior official of the United Nations refugee agency says it will be many months before Iraqis living abroad can return home safely. Dennis McNamara, special Iraq envoy for the U.N. refugee agency, has just returned to Geneva after nearly two weeks in Iraq.

He describes the situation in Iraq as one of post-war, but not post-conflict. And this, he said, means most of Iraq is still too dangerous and too unstable, economically and politically, for people to return.

According to Mr. McNamara, the top American official in Iraq, Paul Bremer, reflected a similar view during discussions they held in Baghdad.

"His appeal will let us get organized on the ground so that we can make it work," said Mr. McNamara. "There needs to be border management. There needs to be security. There needs to be the establishment of fundamental services which are the responsibility of the authority as it is called in the Security Council resolution. …Those responsibilities have to be met by them in order for us to do our job."

Refugee officials say there are about 400,000 Iraqi refugees around the world. A majority live in neighboring countries, but many also live in Europe.

In addition to the Iraqis living abroad, the U.N. refugee agency estimates there are about one million internally displaced in Iraq, primarily because of policies carried out by Saddam Hussein. Iraq also hosts about 120,000 refugees. Most are Palestinians who have lived there for decades.

Mr. McNamara says since the end of the war, about 20,000 Iraqi refugees living in Jordan have gone back home on their own. Although many other Iraqi refugees have expressed a desire to return home soon, he says he does not expect any large-scale refugee returns in the near future.

But the U.N. envoy says he is concerned by the impatience of European countries to start sending the Iraqis home.

"It is too early to start large-scale returns from Europe. We are not ready. The authority is not ready. And the country is not ready for that," said Mr. McNamara, who urged people to "be patient. We are only a few weeks after the end of the war. Do not please push people back prematurely because they may very well become a displaced population within the country and add further to the burdens there."

Mr. McNamara says he has given a similar message to Iran, which is hosting 200,000 Iraqi refugees. He says one of the biggest problems facing refugees and internally displaced people is the issue of property claims.

In many cases, people have moved into the homes that were abandoned by those who were forced to flee. Even though many of the people have lived in these homes for decades, many of the refugees and internally displaced will want to reclaim their original properties. Sorting out these property disputes, Mr. McNamara says, will be very complicated.