Iraq + 2 more

Iraq: Refugee resettlement issues, private sponsorship to be discussed at UN consultations

by Gladys Terichow

WINNIPEG, Man.-MCC Canada is supporting an international effort urging governments from around the world to resettle more refugees from Iraq, with an emphasis on groups identified as exceptionally vulnerable.

The number of Iraqis fleeing to neighbouring countries remains high, said Ed Wiebe, refugee coordinator for MCC Canada. About 1.4 million Iraqis are now displaced in Syria, 750,000 in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt and 200,000 in the Gulf region.

Syria alone receives a minimum of 30,000 Iraqis a month, said Wiebe. "That is an average of 1,000 people a day," he exclaimed.

Wiebe is one of four Canadians selected to represent Canadian non-government organizations (NGOs) working with refugees at the 2007 Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement in Geneva, June 27-29.

Also in attendance at this consultation, organized annually by the United Nations refugee agency, are government representatives from about 25 countries that accept refugees.

These consultations, explained Wiebe, offer a forum for people representing governments and NGOs to share information, review progress on resettlement issues and develop joint strategies for key issues.

NGOs have identified resettlement of refugees from Iraq as one of 10 key resettlement issues. "We are bringing this issue to the table-it will be discussed," he said.

NGOs, he said, are also advocating that new resettlement opportunities be developed in addition to the number of refugees that are currently being accepted by countries. Another key issue is urging governments to continue working towards the resettlement of refugees that have been waiting in refugee camps for 10 years or more.

"These people should not be forgotten," said Wiebe, noting more than 100,000 ethnic Karens from Myanmar (Burma) wait for resettlement in refugee camps in Thailand, more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees wait in refugee camps in eastern Nepal and more than 250,000 Somali and Sudanese refugees wait in refugee camps in Kenya.

Meanwhile, many people looking for resettlement in other countries don't meet the criteria of refugees and are considered internally displaced people, said Wiebe, citing the example of Colombia where threats, intimidation, assassinations and massacres have forced about three million people to flee their homes and relocate to other areas in their own country. Only 200,000 Colombians have found temporary refuge in neighbouring countries.

Currently, about 25 per cent of refugees sponsored by Mennonite churches in Canada are from Colombia, explained Wiebe. These sponsorships are administered by MCC under Canada's private sponsorship program. Mennonite churches have helped more than 50,000 refugees resettle in Canada since this private sponsorship program was started in 1979.

Wiebe and other NGO delegates from Canada will host a workshop in Geneva to discuss the successes and challenges of Canada's private sponsorship program.

Canada is the only country in the world that has developed a private sponsorship program to assist the government in resettlement of refugees and displaced people. "It is a unique system that Canada brings to the international table," said Wiebe. "Other countries are very interested in this program and how it works. They want to know how Canada motivates private citizens to get involved."

Each year, the Canadian government resettles approximately 7,500 refugees through government programs and an additional 4,500 through the private sponsorships. The Canadian government does not place a limit on the number of private sponsorships but a backlog of more than 14,000 applications is a clear indication that the number of applications finalized each year does not match the number of applications that have been submitted, said Wiebe.