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UN Developing Plans to Resettle Iraqi Refugees - 2003-07-09

The United Nations refugee agency says it is developing plans to help a number of Iraqi refugees now living in Saudi Arabia and Iran to return home. But agency officials warn that since not all areas of Iraq are safe, the unsupervised return of a large number of refugees could create further security problems.

The U.N. refugee agency says more than 20,000 refugees have started to make their was back to Iraq from Jordan, Iran, Lebanon and Dubai, with the majority of these being so-called spontaneous returns, people who are returning without assistance from anyone.

But the agency's special envoy to Iraq, Dennis McNamara, warns that large-scale refugee returns at this time are not possible because Iraq still lacks the security and essential services to handle a large influx of people.

"We are still not ready and Iraq is not ready to receive large numbers of refugees. It is just not economically viable at this time to do that," conceded Mr. McNamara. "The only way to do it is small-scale, carefully, build up confidence, build-up the services, make it work and then go from there. It is a longer-term approach that we need on this."

Mr. McNamara says that the U.N. refugee agency, with the permission of the Coalition Provisional Authority, is planning to help some refugees return to parts of Iraq that are relatively safe. In the coming weeks, he says, several hundred Iraqi refugees now living on the Saudi border and some 50,000 women and children in Iran will be helped to return to southern Iraq, around Basra, which is considered safe.

"We have to return some of those people as a safety valve," said the U.N. official. "If we don't they are likely to return on their own without us in a disorderly way."

Mr. McNamara says the U.N. refugee agency has won assurances from Iran, which hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees - about 200,000 - not to force them to return home until conditions there stabilize.

And the refugee agency official adds that once property disputes are settled for the one million Iraqis displaced inside the country, the agency will also offer assistance in helping them return home.