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SYRIA: Not safe enough for Iraqi refugees to return - UNHCR chief

DAMASCUS, 14 February 2008 (IRIN) - The UN high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said on 14 February that he did not believe it was safe enough for Iraqi refugees to be returning to their violence-plagued country.

"We have clear criteria for the promotion of returns - those criteria are not met by the situation in Iraq now," he said. "So we are not promoting returns to Iraq in the present circumstances because we do not believe the conditions are there for that to be possible on a meaningful scale."

The comments come in the middle of Guterres' week-long trip to the region, during which he has visited refugees and met government officials in Jordan and Syria. He moves on to Iraq next.

In recent months there have been reports that Iraqi refugees were beginning to return to their country but there are no clear figures on this and a trend has not been confirmed.

The Iraqi Red Crescent said in January that almost 45,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria had returned home between September and December 2007. However, their figures have been disputed.

Most of the estimated one million Iraqi refugees in Syria are not allowed to work legally and, with the price of basic commodities and rents soaring, many who have used up their savings in Syria are now unable to afford to stay any longer.

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The Iraqi government says that the (allegedly) increased number of returning refugees points to an improving security situation in the country.

"The security situation is really better than before and everyone notices it," said a source at the Iraqi embassy in Syria who wished to remain anonymous. "The reason behind Guterres' advice is that it's not yet 100 percent safe, but we think it's safe enough now to go back."

According to UNHCR estimates based on observations at the Syria-Iraq border, the past week saw an average of 1,000 refugees entering Syria and the same number returning to Iraq each day.

An assurance from Syria

During his visit to Syria, Guterres also met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and said he obtained an assurance that no Iraqi refugees would be forcibly deported from the country.

The Syrian government changed the visa regulations in October 2007, making it more difficult for Iraqis to obtain Syrian visas and then limiting their stay to just three months.

"We received reassurances from his excellency the president and the government that, independent of their legal status in Syria, Iraqi refugees will not be pushed back into Iraq against their will and that the asylum space will be preserved in Syria for Iraqis," said Guterres.

Appeal for more money

Guterres also called for greater international financial support to meet the UNHCR's current funding appeal, saying that refugee assistance was under threat without greater backing.

The UNHCR in Syria recently said that only US$56 million of the required US$131 million in funding for UNHCR programmes in Syria has been committed.

"We hope that our appeal will be able to have a positive response. In the present situation we are far from guaranteed to have our programmes fully financed. We feel we are not doing enough so, as you can imagine, we will be extremely frustrated if we have to reduce what we are doing," Guterres said.

jl/ar/cb

Theme (s): Conflict, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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