Conference offers glimmer of hope for refugees

Guterres says the conference kept hopes alive for Iraqi refugees Keystone

The United Nations refugee agency has welcomed Iraq's decision to assist its citizens who have fled abroad to escape the continuing violence.

This content was published on April 18, 2007 - 21:51

As a conference on refugees ended on Wednesday, Switzerland said it was prepared to organise a follow-up meeting to coordinate assistance to Iraqis forced to flee to neighbouring countries.

The two-day international conference in Geneva focused on the plight of nearly four million Iraqis who have been driven from their homes.

"It would be prudent to organise a meeting of experts in the region. Switzerland is willing to offer its technical support and expertise," Anton Thalmann, who led the Swiss delegation, told swissinfo.

Switzerland was involved in humanitarian meetings shortly before the Iraqi invasion began in 2003 but with their impact was limited.

The importance of the refugee crisis was kept quiet for political and social reasons. The United States turned a blind eye to the problem and many refugees went to stay with members of their families in Iraq's neighbouring countries, according to Yves Besson, a Middle East expert at Fribourg University.

During this week's conference the Swiss government reiterated that it will double its humanitarian aid to SFr4 million ($3.3 million) annually for Iraq. It has contributed a total of SFr10 million over the past four years.

But the government has not decided whether to accept more Iraqi refugees.

Humanitarian programme

For its part, the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council has urged the Swiss authorities to renew a humanitarian programme to help alleviate the crisis.

"We appeal to the Swiss government to accept a regular contingent of Iraqi refugees from Iraq's neighbouring countries," a statement said.

The council added that Switzerland has the necessary capacity to take in more displaced people from Iraq as the number of asylum seekers from Balkan countries has decreased significantly.

Between 1950 and 1995 Switzerland regularly accepted a few hundred Iraqi refugees at the request of the UN refugee agency. But the policy was suspended later in an effort to give priority to asylum seekers from the former Yugoslavia.

Hope

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said on Wednesday that the pledge by the Iraqi government to spend $25 million assisting Iraqis in Syria and Jordan would keep hopes alive.

"It is a major change in the pattern of relations in the region and in the prospects for refugees in the area. There is nothing worse than the feeling of these people that they are abandoned," said Guterres.

However, Hasni Abidi, chairman of the Geneva-based Study and Research Center for the Arab and Mediterranean World (Cermam) struck a more pessimistic note.

"The conference comes late and the international community did not act adequately to prevent the disaster," said Abidi.

Refugee status

He told swissinfo that countries including the US or Britain tried to play down the political context of the refugee crisis and denied any responsibility. "But the exodus is a consequence of the occupation of Iraq and of the war."

He pointed out that Syria and Jordan had no interest in granting displaced Iraqis official refugee status in line with Palestinian refugees.

For its part, Iraq has insisted that the two million refugees abroad and 1.9 million who have fled violence to other parts of the country will eventually return to their homes.

Up to 50,000 people are still leaving the country every month, and tens of thousands more are internally displaced, according to UN figures.

While he acknowledged that the conference did reach its aim of winning pledges of more than $60 million for the refugees, Abidi said it was "not clear how the money will be used".

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

More than 200 people were killed on Wednesday in a series of attacks in Iraq - one of the worst daily death tolls since November.

Up to 50,000 people leave Iraq every month, according to the UN refugee agency.

Two million Iraqis have fled abroad and another 1.9 million are internally displaced people.

Switzerland has taken in about 5,000 Iraqi refugees.

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Refugee conference

Iraq pledged $25 million in aid for refugees in neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

The conference received assurances of $60 million in financial support.

The meeting failed to reach a deal by industrialised countries to accept Iraqi refugees.

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