Press conference by office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 13 Nov 2007

from UN Department of Public Information
Published on 13 Nov 2007
The refugee operation in Iraq, often underestimated as a protection operation only, represented the biggest refugee challenge currently facing the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, said today at a Headquarters press conference.

Addressing correspondents on the agency's efforts to help protect more than 32 million refugees and others of concern, including in key operations like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Jordan, Ms. Feller said that the Iraq operation had been underestimated as a protection operation; much of the world press and UNHCR partners looked at it as an assistance operation involving the provision of food and non-food items for people in neighbouring countries.

Although it was a huge assistance operation, for which UNHCR had a budget of some $123 million in the neighbouring countries, and involved close to 1.4 million people in Syria, it went beyond assistance, stated Ms. Feller. The operation also functioned in a very problematic protection environment and had a number of components that gave serious reason for concern. Those concerns were quite a challenge for UNHCR and its partners to address.

One of the key protection challenges included accessing the population, she went on. Registration was important for understanding the vulnerabilities of the people and the kinds of problems they faced, but UNHCR had only been able to register fewer than 200,000 people out of a population of 1.4 million in Syria. That situation gave an indication of the dimension of the problem. That issue had concerned, more than reluctance on that part of the Government of Syria to allow UNHCR full access outside of Damascus, but UNHCR's capacity and support for its activities in that regard. UNHCR was trying to beef up its registration so that there was better understanding of the issues and vulnerabilities of the refugees.

Of particular concern were the serious difficulties of women, who made up a large portion of the refugee population, including many women heads of households, single women, women with children and women without male support, she went on. There had been a resurgence of problems, such as "weekend marriages", in which young girls in a family were made available for traditional marriage ceremonies for a weekend to men willing to pay for such a ceremony. A divorce was then arranged at the end of the weekend. Such an arrangement was not labelled as prostitution, but as marriage, although in reality it was "survival sex". That protection issue also needed to be addressed.

Other issues included detention of Iraqis, she said, noting that, in Lebanon, there was a high rate of detention of Iraqi asylum seekers. That problem tended to go up and down depending on the security environment. It was very difficult for the UNHCR to get the refugees out, as the main way to be released from detention was to return home to Iraq, but that was not a real consideration at present. As a result, there were people in detention who had overstayed their sentences, sometimes by months, with very little opportunity for getting out, for such minor offences as irregular entry into the country.

"Narrowing protection space" was another area of concern, said Mr. Feller. Syria and the other countries had been very generous and had opened their doors to the refugees, but those doors were now closing. There were now restrictive visa regimes, which created difficulties for entry, and there were problems associated with the renewal of short-term visas. There were also difficulties associated with staying in a country beyond three months without returning to Iraq to renew the visas, and then encountering a visa barrier to return.

Another underreported situation concerned the fact that Iraq had also been a host country for refugees, so now, refugees of other nationalities were fleeing Iraq, she said. Those included Palestinians, which numbered some 13,000 inside Iraq. Several in that category of refugees were stuck in the no-man's land between Syria and Iraq, or inside Iraq. It had been very difficult to find solutions for those refugees for a whole range of reasons. The UNHCR had found some resettlement opportunities for them, but those were not sufficient.

Turning to resettlement in general, she said that the transfer of people from the host country to a third country for a more durable stay was in high demand. However, there was quite a gap between the need for resettlement, the availability of resettlement places and UNHCR's processing capacities.

Thus, she said that UNHCR appealed to the international community to see the singular importance of burden sharing with the countries in the region that had borne the huge burden so far, in order to increase the number of available resettlement places. UNHCR had set a target for 2007 of some 20,000 Iraqi refugees leaving the countries in the region for countries outside the region, but for 2008, it estimated that there would not be more than 16,000 such places available.

UNHCR had a large programme to facilitate the re-entry of children into schools, she added. Those programmes were running quite well in the countries in the region. It also had a separate health appeal, with a view to supporting and underpinning the health services that were available to Iraqis in the region.

Responding to questions, Ms. Feller said that timelines for refugees to return to their countries were set, in part, by host Governments. The Pakistani Government had set 2009 as the time when registered Afghans in that country should return to Afghanistan. It was proceeding with a staged return, in part, through the closure of camps. A large number of Afghans were not registered and, therefore, were more vulnerable since they did not fall within the timeline and could be expelled at any point.

The UNHCR had very good cooperation with Pakistan's Government and had been able to delay the closure of certain camps, she added. It was also working with that Government on staged and voluntary return, which was a sustainable return linked to the reception capacity inside Afghanistan and assistance to those that were returning. UNHCR was still in discussion with the Governments of Pakistan and Iran -- another major host country in the region of Afghan refugees -- on possible alternatives to repatriation for those for whom it was more feasible or more realistic to stay where they were on a temporary or even more permanent basis.

She announced that UNHCR had held discussions with the Iranian authorities over their recent declaration of certain areas as "no go" areas. The Iranians had serious security issues and were determined to proceed with either relocation of the Afghan populations to other parts of Iran or their return. As part of the envisaged return arrangements, Iran had indicated a willingness to look at some kind of migrant worker relations, particularly with young Afghan males who would return to Afghanistan and then be enabled to come back to Iran on the basis of a temporary migrant worker arrangement.

Responding to another question, she said that there had been Palestinian refugees in Jordan until very recently. Those refugees had been housed in the Ruwaishid Camp. With the support of Brazil, in particular, that population had been moved on a resettlement basis to Brazil. Other Palestinians trying to enter neighbouring countries were essentially in two camps, the Al Tampf Camp in the no-mans land between Syria and Iraq, and the El Walid Camp just inside Iraq on the border of the no-man's land with Syria.

She added that the UNHCR was discussing resettlement of the Palestinians with other countries because that seemed increasingly to be the only viable option for them. There had been some very positive responses from Chile, which would be taking some people from the Al Tampf Camp. The Sudan had also said that it would be prepared to resettle some of the Palestinians.

The Iraqi refugees were not in camps, but were essentially an urban refugee problem, she explained. UNHCR's approach to the issue of weekend marriages had been to try and reach out into the communities directly, using community members, and to identify those women that might be at particular risk. In addition, the UNHCR had several local support structures.

On resource availability, she said that some refugee situations were well funded because they happened to be high on the agenda of certain States or because they had been well covered in the media. However there were situations that were singularly under funded because they were not in the public spotlight. An example was the recent repatriation agreement for Mauritanians to return from Senegal to Mauritania, which involved some 60,000 people. UNHCR had made a very modest appeal of about $7 million, but to date, it was funded only up to $1.3 million.

She also highlighted the situation in Yemen, which had been a very generous asylum country. For the last several months, Yemen had arriving at its shores sometimes up to three boats a day carrying 100 Somalis and similar numbers of Ethiopians, with constant tragedies at the beaches. Yemen had opened its doors and received those people, and had set up a Somali camp for them outside Aden. It was an open camp where the Somalis were able to go and receive assistance. They were also able to move into town with no restrictions on their freedom of movement and no detention problem.

Replying to another question, she said that refugees were often detained mainly for irregular entry, such as arriving without passports or requisite documentation, or for falsification of documents. Their sentences were usually from anywhere from three months to a little more, but there was no judicial review. Some persons had been in detention centres for six months beyond the expiration of their sentences.

To another question, she said that UNHCR had very limited representation of international staff inside Iraq. It only had one person in Baghdad and several people in the North, but it worked through a network of national staff. It had concentrated a lot of effort in setting up protection assistance centres. One or several had been set up in each province, as places where individuals or groups could go for a whole range of assistance. They began as a source of legal assistance to help people who had moved from one area to another to obtain documents to enable them to stay and access services. It was not clear that setting up alternative accommodation inside Iraq would be a reason not to leave Iraq since many people were fleeing the targeted violence.

On what UNHCR had learned from the recent incident of attempted transportation of children out of Chad, she said that the agency had learned not "to take all good-will NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at face value". UNHCR did not have any contact with the organization, Zoe's Ark, but had been dealing with an entity called Rescue Children, which was a reputable organization involved in medical assistance, including for children. No connection was made between the two organizations until it came to light that what Zoe's Ark was doing was deplorable. UNHCH had joined the broader United Nations effort to try and assist the children by helping to register them and to trace their families.

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