BAGHDAD – The head of the U.N. refugee agency expressed hope Monday that the end was in sight for Iraq's refugee crisis but called on the new government to develop a plan to tackle sensitive issues like property rights for those who return.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said progress has been made but many areas remain dangerous and returning refugees face problems with housing, access to schools and a lack of basic services.
"I hope that we might be witnessing the beginning of the end of the Iraqi refugee and displacement crisis," he said during a news conference at the end of a three-day visit.
"I have the hope that with the more inclusive nature of the new government, political conditions will be created for a progressive improvement of the security situation," he added.
The UNHCR says some 90,000 refugees have returned home over the past three years as security has improved, but Guterres acknowledged that Iraq faced a new outflow as Christians and other minorities have fled a recent spate of attacks.
Guterres, who met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, said he was encouraged by their grave concern about the issue.
Almost 200,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees with UNHCR, mainly in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. The agency estimates that another 1.3 million Iraqis are internally displaced, with 500,000 of them living in extremely precarious conditions.
Guterres criticized the forcible deportation of Iraqis from several European countries, saying the decision to return must be voluntary.
"To force people to return home against their will where insecurity prevails is unacceptable," he said.
He singled out Sweden, saying the Nordic country overall has been very generous to Iraqi refugees but recently has rejected several asylum seekers.
Swedish officials have not explained the deportations of Iraqis, including a group last week, except to say that they did not pass immigration reviews. Last month, an Iraqi-born Swede blew himself up in a botched bombing in central Stockholm.
Guterres also said the resettlement of Palestinian refugees stranded on the Iraq-Syria border is nearly complete. He said the UNHCR hopes to resettle a last group of about 200 Palestinian refugees from a camp in the very near future, closing what he called a "tragic chapter."
The Iraqi government also has promised to protect around 10,000 Palestinians remaining in the country as well as Turkish Kurds and other foreign refugees, he said.
Palestinians in Iraq became a target for persecution after Saddam Hussein's regime fell in 2003 and were forced to flee to Syria. Thousands were refused asylum and stranded on the border.