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Conditions Not Ripe for Mass Refugee Return, says Iraqi Minister - 2003-10-01

Iraq's newly appointed minister for displacement and migration says conditions in Iraq have to stabilize before a large-scale repatriation operation can begin.

Iraq's minister for displacement and migration, Muhammed Jasem Khdeir, says Iraq is eager to welcome back the millions of refugees and other people who fled into exile during the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein. But he says conditions in the country are not yet ripe for mass returns.

But he says his ministry has begun planning for the eventual return of several hundreds of thousands of people.

While in Geneva, he says, he has met with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers and other officials who deal with refugee issues inside and outside Iraq. Speaking through an interpreter, the Iraqi minister said they discussed the many elements needed for the successful return and re-integration of refugees into Iraqi life.

"As you know, there are huge numbers outside of the country and conditions must be conducive for them to return. There only remain a few months to the end of this year. We hope that in the future, we can consolidate and increase our cooperation with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, with host governments, with other donor governments, to try to prepare as much as possible the ground for returnees to find appropriate housing and employment and other services in coordination with the relevant ministries and institutions in Iraq," he said.

The U.N. refugee agency says it drew up plans earlier this year to assist with the voluntary return of more than one-half million Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers. It also planned to help about 800,000 internally displaced people in Iraq return to their homes.

But spokesman Peter Kessler said these plans were put on hold after the deadly bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19.

"We are not recommending that anyone go back for the time being," he said. "The situation is really, security-wise, difficult. Right now because of security inside the country, we have had to withdraw the vast majority of our workers. Our local staff as well have been targeted, such as the recent attack in late September in Baghdad. So, clearly the U.N. and its national workers are at threat and much more has to be done to ensure their security."

Mr. Kessler says the UNHCR does not rule out the possibility of starting large-scale repatriations next year. He says the agency can quickly increase operations if security conditions improve.