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Nations Commit Themselves to Helping Iraqi Refugees


The U.N. refugee agency says nations have pledged to support and to protect nearly four million refugees and displaced people in Iraq and surrounding countries. They also promised to help the host countries cope with their overwhelming refugee burden. More than 450 representatives from 60 countries attended the two-day international refugee conference. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres says the conference accomplished what it set out to do. He says the UNHCR has received strong political commitment from all governments to assist the refugees and the countries that are hosting them.

"There was a unanimous recognition of the generosity of the host countries and especially of Syria and Jordan and of the huge impact that Iraqi refugees have had in their economy and their society and the clear commitment for burden sharing," said Guterres.

"The financial burden sharing and also for increase in resettlement opportunities for the most vulnerable for which return will never be an effective option," he added.

The United States had originally agreed to resettle about 7,000 vulnerable Iraqis.

But Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Population Ellen Sauerbrey says that number will be boosted.

"I think it is fair to say that if we get the referrals, we could resettle up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees within the president's determination this year," she said.

Although this was not a pledging conference, Guterres says he believes the many promises of support will also translate into financial commitments in the near future.

He says participants at the conference also recognized that conditions of security inside Iraq are not conducive for the safe, voluntary return of refugees right now. He says everyone rejected the idea that people should be forced back into Iraq against their will.

"And as you know, this is something that has been looming on the horizon sometimes in the recent past," he said. "So, this is very clear. The solution is, of course, voluntary return."

"Now, for that to be possible, it is very important that the Iraqi government engages with its population in the host countries because there is nothing worse than a feeling of these people that they are abandoned by their government. Because if they feel they are abandoned by their government, they will try to find solutions outside the region and they will not consider return as a major option," Guterres continued.

The Iraqi government told the conference it will take a more active role in helping the refugees. Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, says his government will initially spend $25 million to help Syria and Jordan provide health and education for the Iraqi refugees.

He says his government will provide displaced Iraqis with the documents and passports they need to get essential services. One thing his government will not do, Zebari says, is abandon Iraq's millions of refugees.