UN hints at Iraq refugee returns

Other News Materials 17 February 2008 00:22 (UTC +04:00)

The UN's top refugee official has hinted that security in Iraq may soon have improved enough for some of the 4m Iraqi refugees to begin returning home.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told the BBC the UNHCR and Iraqi government were planning an assessment of conditions.

Some 2m Iraqis have fled abroad, while another 2m are displaced inside Iraq.

In December, the UNHCR said the situation in Iraq was "not yet conducive to large-scale return".

Speaking in Baghdad after talks with Iraqi leaders, Mr Guterres told the BBC's Jim Muir that his agency, UNHCR, would be increasing its international staff in Baghdad.

He said it would be working closely with the Iraqi government in carrying out a detailed assessment of the situation on the ground.

Mr Guterres told the BBC that it was time to start thinking about the possibility of returns, but it had to be established that conditions were right before going any further.

"To promote returns one needs to be sure that there is security, that they can return in safety, but also that there are conditions for a successful integration in society," he said.

"This is the kind of homework that I believe needs to be done and in which we want to be fully engaged in cooperation with the Iraqi government."

Our correspondent says the security situation has improved considerably in many parts of Iraq over the past six months, though it is still far from perfect.

A limited number of refugees have already attempted to return home, mainly from Syria, which has absorbed about 1.5m Iraqis.

Mr Guterres said the country had been extremely open and generous towards them and deserved more support from the international community for its efforts.

Jordan has also taken in nearly one million refugees.

Mr Guterres said the two countries were paying a huge price economically and socially for allowing such an enormous influx.