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Iraq: US, UK and other states must protect Iraqi refugees

Amnesty International today (10 February 07) called on the international community to provide effective protection and assistance to nearly two million people fleeing Iraq, in what the UN's top refugee official Antonio Guterres recently called a "humanitarian disaster".

"The international community must urgently offer technical and financial contributions to help countries hosting people fleeing Iraq," said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme. "The US and UK, as leading members of the Multinational Force (MNF), and the Iraqi government, should do much more to ensure that durable protection is afforded to these refugees as well as to the 1.7 million internally displaced people inside Iraq."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Wednesday that there were over 1.7 million Iraqis now internally displaced, including some 500,000 who have become displaced since the bombing of a Shi'a holy shrine in the city of Samarra in February 2006. The UNHCR also said that since 2003, up to two million Iraqis have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Of these, some 700,000 currently reside in Jordan and approximately one million in Syria.

Geographically positioned to provide a significant degree of primary support to Iraqi refugee flows, Jordan and Syria have been instrumental in providing a large level of assistance to date. Amnesty International believes that they must continue to do this, along with other countries in the region and beyond, including by continuing to allow entry through their borders to those seeking protection, in accordance with their obligations under international law.

However, the international community must do much more to help and offer urgently-needed assistance. Amnesty International further believes that alternatives such as third-country resettlement should be considered as options in a true "responsibility-sharing approach"” In addition, the 1.7 million people internally displaced within Iraq are urgently in need of assistance. Both the Iraqi government and the MNF must take all possible steps to ensure their protection.

Many countries hosting Iraqi nationals have not forcibly returned them to Iraq. In the interest of continued protection, host countries such as the US should not return rejected asylum seekers to Iraq. The US bears a particular responsibility to protect those who have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. In addition, the US needs to make a proactive effort to resettle more Iraqis quickly and safely than it has up to this point.

"US policy and military action helped create the dreadful situation that now prevails in Iraq, yet up until now very few Iraqis displaced as a result of war have been allowed to take refuge in the US," said Malcolm Smart. "The US authorities must stand up their obligations on this issue and help lead the effort to provide long term durable solutions for Iraqi refugees."

In the UK, Amnesty International has expressed serious concern over plans to forcibly return asylum seekers to Northern Iraq. Many Iraqis are now reportedly being held in detention pending deportation on Monday 12 February.

Amnesty International UK Refugee Programme Director Jan Shaw said:

“Forcing people back to Iraq, even to the North, will put people’s lives at risk. Amnesty remains opposed to any forcible return of asylum-seekers to Iraq, including to the Kurdish region.

“In post-conflict situations people should not be returned unless there is stability and a durable peace; neither of those is true in Iraq.

“Given the colossal scale of fighting and bloodshed in the country, it is hard to describe Iraq’s situation as ‘post-conflict’ at all.

“Imagine how terrifying it must be for those watching the chaos unfolding in Iraq on the news to then receive a letter from the government stating that they are about to be flown back there.”

Amnesty International insisted that it does not consider that the Kurdish region of Iraq can be considered to have the safety or stability conducive to safe and sustainable return, and any return to it would be premature.

The two main Kurdish political parties are partners in the central Iraqi government and the leader of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) is also the president of Iraq. Much of the current insurgency is aimed at the central government and its agents. Furthermore, the unresolved status of the city of Kirkuk - located outside but near the three Kurdish provinces with a mixed ethnic population of mainly Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen – has potential for increasing violence which may impact on the security situation in the region.

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