The UN chief was speaking to journalists following a visit to the Jeddah Rehabilitation Centre in northern Iraq, where he met returnees from the notorious Al-Hol camp, whose residents are mainly women and children under 12.
“Iraq is demonstrating with enormous commitment that responsible repatriations are possible, by finding dignified solutions anchored in the principles of both accountability and reintegration. And it is working. I witnessed it today,” he said.
Dire conditions, potential risks
Mr. Guterres – a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees who has visited camps across the globe – was certain that Al-Hol is “the worst camp that exists in today’s world”, noting that people have been stranded there for years and in the worst possible conditions.
He said detainees have been deprived of their rights, and are vulnerable and marginalized, and remain trapped in a desperate situation with no end in sight.
“They deserve a path out. This is a matter of human decency and compassion – and it is a matter of security,” he said.
“Because 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.”
A complex issue
The Secretary-General commended the Iraqi Government for its efforts, which he called “an example for the world”, though recognizing that repatriation is an extremely complex, challenging and sensitive issue.
He appealed to countries that have nationals in Al-Hol camp and elsewhere to “significantly step up their efforts” toward the safe and dignified return of these persons.
“They need to follow the example of Iraq,” said Mr. Guterres. “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.”
Support for reintegration
Mr. Guterres said the returnees he met at the rehabilitation centre want to reintegrate into their communities and societies.
He encouraged the Iraqi authorities to continue working towards their accelerated community-based reintegration, noting that most are under the age of 18.
The Secretary-General underlined the UN’s full commitment and support for what he called “this vital effort”.