by Gustavo Capdevila
(IPS) GENEVA --
to assist millions of Iraqi refugees to return home have been put on hold due to the military and political insecurity that persists after six months of U.S. occupation, according to organizations involved in humanitarian operations.
Mohammed Jasem Khudir, Minister of Migration and Displacement of the Iraqi Governing Council that was designated by the U.S.-led military coalition, said he is confident that an improvement in security conditions would allow the organizations to carry out their repatriation efforts in the near future.
"We hope to be able to remove obstacles to return to Iraq for refugees who wish to do so," said Khudir, who is in Geneva for the annual session of the executive committee for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
This UN agency -- which attends to some 20 million people worldwide who have been forced to abandon their countries of origin for political reasons -- earlier this year had drawn up plans to support the voluntary return and reintegration of some 500,000 Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers.
The plan that the UNHCR drafted prior to the March invasion by U.S. and British forces also covered the return home of some 800,000 people displaced within Iraq itself.
The internally displaced, a category that covers 20 million to 25 million people worldwide, also is of great concern to the UN agency because these populations can easily turn into the protagonists of an exodus, putting them in a refugee situation.
But the plans for Iraq were interrupted by the Aug. 19 bomb attack at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and continuing attacks on U.S. troops, said Ruud Lubbers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Aug. 19 explosion killed 22 people, including the head of the UN mission in Baghdad, Brazilian Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was serving as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's personal representative in Iraq.
At that time, the UN announced its intentions to continue in its role of assisting the Iraqi people, but that efforts would be subject to improved security conditions.
Annan said that the humanitarian agencies must not fall into complacency when the lives of its officials and staff are at stake.
"Our challenge now is to find the right balance," Lubbers said this week as the executive committee began deliberations.
"Ultimately, the answers lie not in more armoured vehicles, barricades and armed guards, but in improving the overall political environment," he said.
Before the bomb attacks, the UNHCR had offices in Baghdad, Basra in the south and Erbil in the north, with 42 international officials and 98 Iraqis working. Now, only two foreigners remain in Erbil, but the number of local employees has risen to 118.
"In Iraq, we face a difficult postwar task," admitted Arthur E. Dewey, U.S. assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration. The occupying forces govern Iraq through the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
The invasion of Iraq began March 20, and President Bush announced the war was over on May 1, when the Saddam Hussein regime fell.
Khudir estimates that four million Iraqis -- out of a population of approximately 22 million -- were forced to flee the country during the Hussein dictatorship. But so far, only the refugees who were settled in Rafha, Saudi Arabia, are returning.
A week ago, the fourth convoy of trucks from Rafha reached Iraq, transporting 450 people. Through operations like this, 1,200 people have returned so far.
The Iraqi minister said a fifth convoy from Saudi Arabia is being prepared.
On the matter of refugees, one of the objectives of the Governing Council, the authority installed in Baghdad by the CPA, is for the 202,000 Iraqis currently in Iran to return home.
Khudir said he had signed a framework agreement with Iran here on Wednesday morning to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees and displaced persons.
The Iraqi refugee population consists of people "from many different groups: Muslims and Christians, and among those Sunnis, Shiah as well as Kurds and Arabs," said the minister.
"Many are professionals with technical skills, others are teachers... We hope that the return of these individuals will be able to contribute to the reconstruction process of the country," he told journalists Wednesday.
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