Friday, February 2, 2007

UN seeks haven for Iraqi refugees

Toronto Star
UN seeks haven for Iraqi refugees

Canada among Western countries asked to open doors to those fleeing violence
January 20, 2007
Bruce Campion-Smith

OTTAWA–The federal government is weighing plans to accept Iraqis displaced by the violence in their homeland.

Federal officials expect the United Nations' refugee agency to make a formal request for Canada to open its borders to assist with a flood of refugees that is growing by 50,000 people a month.

The UN High Commission for Refugees issued a fresh appeal on Jan. 8 for international assistance to raise $60 million to help cope with the swelling refugee crisis that has spilled over from Iraq into neighbouring countries.

Now, the UN is expected to ask western nations to open their doors for Iraqis unable to return to their own homes out of fear for their safety.

"We expect that UNHCR will formally approach Canada soon to determine whether we would be willing to accept additional referrals of Iraqi refugees," Sheila Watson, a spokesperson for the federal citizenship and immigration department, said

"Although we can't give a firm number of how many referrals Canada will accept, discussions are now going on within CIC to identify how many additional Iraqi refugees we could take."

The UN agency estimates that 1.7 million Iraqis are displaced within the country while another 2 million residents have fled to other countries.

In a series of meetings this week, the United States made its own pitch to Canada to accept Iraqi refugees.

Ellen Sauerbrey, an American assistant secretary of state, says many Iraqis who fled to Syria or Jordan, including victims of torture, women and children, and members of the small Christian minority, will never be able to return to Iraq.

"We've encouraged Canada to make this a priority in their resettlement policy because this is an area of tremendous need and vulnerability," she told reporters.

Sauerbrey, who said she's been told Canada has already accepted 49 such Iraqi refugees, spent two days in Ottawa this week discussing the matter with foreign affairs and immigration officials.

Canada has a long tradition of providing safe haven to refugees from turmoil abroad – Hungarians fleeing communist oppression in the 1950s; 7,000 Chileans fleeing the 1973 military coup; 5,000 refugees affected by the 1999 Kosovo and, perhaps most famously, 60,000 Vietnamese refugees.

But Watson stressed that discussions are very much in the preliminary stages in Ottawa and said it was too soon to say how many – if any – refugees Canada might accept from this most recent conflict.

"The important thing, discussions are now going on so we're not there yet," she said.

The UN refugee agency has already asked governments to "favourably" consider asylum seekers from southern and central Iraq.

Earlier this week in Washington, Iraqi refugees masking their identity told a Senate committee that guides and translators who have risked their lives for U.S. troops are now facing death threats and cannot get out of the country.

Although the war has led to a flood of some 2 million Iraqis fleeing their homeland, the U.S. has admitted only 466 of them.

Washington is under increasing pressure to step up to the plate and help those who have been displaced by the invasion.

Sauerbrey said the U.S. could take as many as 20,500 Iraqi refugees this year if funding were made available by the Congress.

With files from Tim Harper and Canadian Press