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UN official sees opening for help to Iraqi refugees, but says time running out

UN official sees opening for help to Iraqi refugees, but says time running out

A top refugee official of the United Nations warned on Tuesday of the possibility that Iraqi refugees might be expelled from their sanctuaries unless the United States, Iraq and other countries act quickly to share the burden of their care.
L. Craig Johnstone, deputy to the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees, said a "window of opportunity" exists now, five years after the U.S.-led invasion, because of "a clear improvement in the security situation" spawned by a U.S. military offensive.
"This window of opportunity should not be taken for granted, as it is difficult to predict what the security environment will be like following the `surge' and the current pause in sectarian violence, ... or how long the generosity and tolerance of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Syria and Jordan, will last."
Johnstone testified before a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. It was considering whether the United States could do more to help the refugee problem.
Democrats on the panel strongly held to the conclusion that it could and should. "It is believed by many that this is an American-made crisis," said Rep. William Delahunt, the subcommittee's chairman.
"Our response must therefore be timely, decisive and fully resourced _ not simply because it is right and reflects our values, but because it will prevent the further erosion of how we are viewed in the region."
More than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced by the war, 2.2 million within Iraq and at least 2 million in neighboring countries. Most of those outside are in Syria or Jordan.
Whether the current opening for action can be sustained, Johnstone said, "will largely depend on the leadership of the Iraqi government addressing some of the pending political issues."
"Without tangible progress on the political front, the country risks falling back into the cycle of sectarian violence witnessed over the past two years," Johnstone said. "Pressure should continue to be exerted by all concerned parties on the government of Iraq to recognize the humanitarian dimension of the problem and the need to maintain links with the large numbers of Iraqis outside the country."
He said the UNHCR expects all those outside to be repatriated, and Jordan and Syria has the same expectation. Otherwise, he said, the results could be disastrous.
"The lack of assistance to refugees and host communities in neighboring states could also lead to a mass (coerced) return to Iraq as the ability of host governments to provide assistance, as well as the coping mechanisms of refugees, incrementally fail," Johnstone said in his prepared text. "The likelihood that the bulk of refugees will not be able to return to their original home and will be forced into secondary displacement will also have a significant destabilizing effect on the social and security environment within Iraq."
That already has happened to an extent.
People who already have begun to return because their visas have expired or they have run out of money, Johnstone told a lawmaker, "to a large measure are not going back to their homes. They are going to neighborhoods where they feel safe.
"They are not returning home, as we usually think of it, but are being resettled in Iraq."