- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

The United Nations has made it harder for Iraqis from Anbar and southern provinces to receive official refugee status because of security gains there, but still advises against “massive returns” to Iraq of those who fled abroad.

Until now, Iraqi citizenship was sufficient for hundreds of thousands fleeing the war-torn country to receive automatic refugee status, with benefits including financial assistance and U.N. help with resettlement in another country.

However, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said this week that asylum seekers from Anbar, a western largely Sunni province, and Iraq’s southern provinces, which are mostly Shi’ite, will no longer be eligible for automatic approval but will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“We are not saying that the security situation is great, but it has improved, and not everyone probably needs refugee status,” said Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR’s Iraq support unit, who visited Washington this week.

“We still have a very generous interpretation [of status requirements] for Iraqis,” he said. “Those who need protection will be afforded protection.”

The U.N. agency also said it will give “favorable consideration” to “certain groups” of Iraqis deemed particularly vulnerable, such as members of religious and ethnic minorities, public officials, those affiliated with the U.S.-led multinational forces or with foreign companies, news media workers, human rights activists and gays.

Iraqis from the country’s central provinces, where violence is ongoing, will remain eligible for automatic refugee status, UNHCR said. Applicants from the more peaceful northern Kurdish areas have been assessed on a case-by-case basis for several years.

“The improvement of the situation in Iraq does not yet constitute fundamental changes sufficient to promote or encourage massive returns to Iraq or to allow for the general application of the cessation clauses removing refugee status,” the agency said.

UNHCR said that as of 2008, about 2 million Iraqis were refugees and about the same number were internally displaced.

The agency is now focused on securing resources to help refugees returning to their homes begin a new life, as well as maintaining sites in countries with large numbers of Iraqis, such as Jordan and Syria, Mr. Harper said.

“We have issued a $300 million appeal for 2009, and the U.S. is a major contributor,” he said. “We are under half-funded, and we need to keep clinics, schools” and food banks open in Syria and Jordan.

Thomas Pierce, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said that about 300,000 Iraqis returned to their homes last year.

“Since Oct. 1, 2008, the U.S. government has contributed more than $150 million to help Iraqi refugees, internally displaced persons and conflict victims. Thus far, our support for returnees has been integrated into our broader programs for the displaced,” he said.

Those programs include protection services, support to health care facilities and improving water and sanitation systems.

“As security and other conditions improve and more Iraqis make the decision to return, we will work with international organizations, NGOs and the government of Iraq to make those returns sustainable,” Mr. Pierce said.

The U.S. is on track to admit about 17,000 Iraqi refugees during the current fiscal year ending Sept. 30, he said, adding that about 25,000 have been accepted since 2006.

Refugees International, an advocacy organization, has urged the Obama administration, Congress and the U.N. to work together to make sure the refugees’ basic needs are met.

“Unfortunately, the Iraqi government has not been proactive” on this issue, and “we think there is an opportunity for U.S. Ambassador [Christopher] Hill to pressure Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki to make changes needed to create an orderly return process,” said the group’s congressional advocate, Jake Kurtzer.

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