NEW YORK: The UN Secretary General has called on more nations to follow Iraq’s example and step up the repatriation of nationals stranded in camps in northeast Syria for Daesh militants and their families.
Antonio Guterres was speaking during a visit to the Jeddah Rehabilitation Centre in Baghdad, where he met with some of those who returned from the Al-Hol camp.
The camp is close to the Iraqi border and houses people displaced after the fall of Daesh. While it is nominally controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, Washington says much of it has been taken over by Daesh militants who use it for indoctrination and recruitment.
More than 60,000 people live in the camp. Half of them are children under the age of 12. There are recurrent reports of children dying in violence as well as from malnutrition.
Recognizing the complexity and sensitivity of the repatriation process, Guterres commended the Iraqi government for providing an “example for the world” and conducting repatriations in a “dignified” manner, while also honoring the principles of accountability and reintegration.
“And it is working. I witnessed it today.”
Guterres called on all 57 countries which have nationals held at the camp — including the US, China, Iran, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland and Australia, to follow Iraq’s example and repatriate them in a dignified manner.
“Iraq is not one of the richest countries in the world,” he said, “but Iraq is having returnees back from Al-Hol. All countries with their citizens in Al-Hol must do the same, and must do the same in a dignified repatriation in line with applicable international law, and in the case of children, guided by the principles of the best interests of children.”
He said it was important for him to have visited the returnees to “express my support for Iraq’s exemplary efforts, to emphasize the importance of continued return, and to urge all other countries and the wider international community to take responsibility and to act.”
Guterres, who spent 10 years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, described Al-Hol as undoubtedly “the worst camp in the world today with the worst possible conditions… and with enormous suffering for the people that have been stranded there for years.”
He added that Al-Hol’s population is trapped in a desperate situation deprived of their rights and marginalized “with no end in sight.”
Providing a way out is not only a matter of “human decency and compassion” but also a matter of security, said Guterres.
“The longer we let this untenable situation fester, the more resentment and despair will grow, and the greater the risks to security and stability.
“We must prevent the legacy of yesterday’s fight from fueling tomorrow’s conflict.”
He concluded his visit to Baghdad by praising the resilience of Iraqis.
“I am deeply grateful to the government of Iraq with all its difficulties, with all its problems, with all the security concerns… [it] is committed to make Iraqis come back here and to be reintegrated and rehabilitated for the future of the communities and for the future of the country,” he said.
“May the Iraq example be followed everywhere else.”