UNHCR's operation in Iraq update 22 Oct 2003

News and Press Release
Originally published
At the end of September the High Commissioner reported to the Secretary General that lack of security was severely restricting UNHCR's capacity to operate effectively in Iraq. Regular protection and assistance activities, which require frequent travel to remote locations and regular contact with local authorities in different parts of the country, were limited. Given that none of UNHCR's ongoing activities could be described as "life-saving", and the need to limit the exposure of staff to unnecessary risk, the organisation temporarily relocated all international staff. It has now established an Iraq Operations Unit in Amman and a small cross-border team in Kuwait, and plans to identify and make the most of all existing opportunities to assist refugees, IDPs, and returnees. Local staff will play a key role, supported by the teams in Jordan and Kuwait. The organisation is also enhancing and increasing partnerships with NGOs, Red Crescent Societies, local authorities, UN agencies, the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

UNHCR staff from Geneva and the Amman support unit met recently to set goals for the next 2-3 months. Using resources available in neighbouring countries and in Iraq itself, UNHCR can make significant and measurable progress towards achieving its four stated objectives, between now and 31 December 2003:

  • Coordinate and facilitate the voluntary, safe, and orderly return of Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers, promoting their sustainable reintegration in communities of origin

  • Provide protection and assistance to refugees living in Iraq, and, where appropriate, facilitate their voluntary repatriation

  • Contribute to orderly and sustainable return and reintegration programmes for internally displaced persons in designated areas of return

  • Promote the reduction of statelessness as well as a secure status for stateless persons, including through legislative advice.
The organisation has set short-term, realistic targets for the first three objectives. It will take longer to make visible progress towards meeting the fourth objective (due to the necessary drafting/legislative process), but UNHCR will, nonetheless, initiate work in this area, providing expertise and acting as a catalyst.

A strategic planning meeting in early November will look at scenarios and agree on policies and action plans for 2004-2005.

Refugees and Returnees

UNHCR is adopting a regional approach to the Iraqi refugee situation, with a special focus on neighbouring countries such as Iran and Turkey, to which refugees in Iraq might be returning and from which Iraqi refugees will be repatriating.

Refugees continue to inform UNHCR that they wish to repatriate. UNHCR has helped six small groups (totalling 2,000 refugees) repatriate from the Rafha Camp in Saudi Arabia, and has (with the governments concerned and the CPA) finalised a return plan for the rest of the refugees who say they want to go back. The operation, which will continue through to the end of 2003, depends on close cooperation between the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the CPA, UNHCR, and NGOs.

UNHCR has supplied NGOs with relief items for distribution to returnees. UNHCR staff are also monitoring progress on the rehabilitation of a transit centre in Basra port. The new centre will soon be operational, and will be used to store UNHCR supplies and receive returning refugeees.

Reports from partners working in Iraq indicate that substantial numbers of refugees are returning spontaneously from Iran on a regular basis. Between 15 and 20 families are currently said to be crossing the border at Shalamshah every day. UNHCR has provided the CPA with a list of names of Iraqi refugees who wish to return from Iran, and hopes to be able to facilitate the spontaneous return of this group shortly.

Over the next few months, the Office will survey and develop sounder knowledge of the Iraqi refugee caseloads in surrounding countries. This will enable the organisation to better assess needs and prospects for return, resulting in higher standards of protection and assistance.

Assessing reconstruction needs from the returnee perspective

If returning refugees and IDPs are to reintegrate into their home communities, it is crucial that rehabilitation efforts target areas of return and take account of the impact returnees will have on the country. UNHCR was therefore pleased to take part in the recent UN/World Bank-led joint needs assessment for the reconstruction of Iraq, published this month. UNHCR aims to link up with development organisations in an effort to ensure that returnees' reconstruction needs are met.

The report observes that "the return and reintegration of IDPs and refugees will have major repercussions for public services and infrastructure, long-term stabilisation, and the human capital of Iraq".

One of the key issues cited by returnees is lack of housing. Many refugees and IDPs have lost their houses - some were confiscated, others were destroyed. The needs assessment indicates that Iraq's total housing stock is around 2.8 million units below the minimum requirement for the current population - noting that refugee and IDP return will put further pressure on the already depleted housing stock. The assessment makes a number of recommendations for ways in which reconstruction actors might addresss the housing problem, including the initiation of a ten-year programme to provide housing to IDPs. It also, importantly, recommends the introduction of a land management system for Iraq that can address land tenure issues and resolve land disputes.

Another priority concern is employment. The needs assessment makes a specific recommendation for the facilitation of community-based reintegration of refugees/IDPs through employment generation and enhancement of access to social and economic services.

UNHCR has also commissioned the American Refugee Committee to carry out a quick separate assessment of reconstruction needs in Iraq's four southern governorates (Al Basrah, Thi Qar, Al Muthanna, and Maysan). This is an area to which large numbers of refugees and IDPs are expected to return. Many left as a result of the war with Iran. Others departed following the First Gulf War: up to 140,000 people are said to have fled the area as the previous regime drained and polluted the marshlands that had supported them. Thousands more died.

Although much of the marshland cannot be rehabilitated, some water can be brought back to the region. But returnees will not be able to simply return to their old traditional farming methods: new techniques may be required, different crops grown, and methods of storage and transport improved. At the same time, new factories need to be built, existing ones rehabilitated. Workers need training and marketing plans have to be drawn up. Many factories are inefficient and some produce harmful emissions that affect the health of both workers and local communities.

Protecting and assisting refugees

Registration of Palestinian refugees continues, alongside UNHCR sponsored assistance provided by the Palestinian Red Crescent to some 400 families who were evicted from their homes shortly after the collapse of the previous regime, and who are now living in tents in a Baghdad sports club. The Palestinian refugee group in Baghdad faces new challenges following the collapse of the previous regime, which had provided a high level of protection and support. The Palestinians are believed to constitute the largest urban caseload of concern to UNHCR in the world.

UNHCR will resume registration of Syrian refugees in the capital, and will shortly sign an agreement under which those who need relief assistance will receive it. Although UNHCR cannot currently visit refugee camps and settlements, it is nonetheless doing its utmost to ensure that assistance gets through. This month's food distribution to Ahwazi refugees in the Basra area is assured, for example, thanks to cooperation between UNHCR, WFP and the Ministry of Trade. Work in the Makhmour camp in northern Iraq, home to some 10,000 Turkish refugees, also continues. The NGO Qandil is improving the water system, equipping a health centre and training healthworkers.


A number of displaced people are either relocating or moving back to their home villages in northern Iraq - despite the fact that many of those villages have been damaged or totally destroyed. Around 800,000 people are estimated to have been displaced in the north, mostly as a result of the previous regime's policy of expelling Kurds and other minorities (i.e. Turkmens, etc.) from their homes and replacing them with others from central and southern Iraq. People have moved when and where they can, many inhabiting abandoned buildings and warehouses.

After the war, many IDPs tried to move back to their original homes. Some are now living in tents pitched next to their destroyed houses. Others have managed to move back into their old homes. Since early summer, UNHCR has been assisting IDPs returning to "noncontentious" villages, where there are no disputes about the ownership of property, to rebuild houses.

The organisation has already completed a comprehensive paper on property issues in northern Iraq. It has established pilot projects for the return of IDPs to non-contentious areas in the north, benefiting returnees and communities who have remained behind. It is an active participant in the UN IDP working group that aims to develop a common, nationwide policy for IDPs in Iraq. At the request of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), the Office has prepared a document highlighting the main issues relating to IDP return, drawing on experience gained in Iraq over the past few months, and on lessons learnt in other IDP situations.

Capacity Building

Capacity building and training will be a key focus in the next three months. UNHCR will organise a series of events for its own national staff and personnel from partner organisations. These will include government counterparts, notably in the Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MDM), and staff from NGOs and Red Crescent Societies. Training will take place in situ, in Amman and, possibly, Geneva. Existing links between ministries involved in the protection, repatriation and reintegration of refugees will be enhanced, and maximum advantage taken of the expertise in refugee/returnee issues that many civil servants already possess. UNHCR has recommended the temporary secondment of staff from ministries such as Interior, Foreign Affairs, Labour, and Social Affairs to the new MDM to help it get established. UNHCR is already providing input to a Jordanian-run training programme for up to 30,000 Iraqi police officers to sensitise them to protection, refugee and returnee issues.

Advisory Role

Cross-cutting protection issues, such as documentation and citizenship, will have to be addressed within the overall context of judicial and other reforms in Iraq and within an interagency approach. UNHCR is likely to play a major role during this phase as local authorities and other UN agencies increasingly look to the organisation for guidance. It is therefore important to initiate and undertake advisory work related to relevant legislation in coordination with local authorities, the CPA and other actors.

National staff

Since the relocation to Amman and Kuwait of all international staff, responsibility has been placed on national staff in Iraq to carry out essential functions. Some 100 national staff currently remain in the country. If and when field visits are organised, staff are advised to travel directly to their destination without transiting through the office.

Consultation meetings in Amman have been initiated, to provide close guidance to national staff, as well as an opportunity for national colleagues to rest and recuperate for a few days. Such consultation meetings will be continued on a regular basis. As national staff are carrying out their work under enormous stress, UNHCR is currently working on arrangements to provide them with additional support.

Funding Situation

As of 21 October 2003, donors had contributed some USD 74.3 million in support of the operation.