The head of a United Nations refugee program in Iraq says the country is increasingly safe, but he continues to recommend that Western countries grant asylum to ethnic and religious minorities — such as Assyrian and Chaldean Christians — who have fled the war-torn nation.
"The situation has generally improved, but the big, big issues and challenges for all Iraqis now is, is this is an improvement that is likely to last in the medium- to long-term?" said Andrew Harper, who leads the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees operation in Iraq.
"Is this going to last after parliamentary elections (in December), or after August 2010," when American forces largely are expected to draw down from Iraq.
About 310,000 Iraqi refugees have registered for resettlement programs under the United Nations. Most of them are minorities.
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Slightly more than half are Sunni Muslims, who make up 20 percent of Iraq's population and were perceived as faring better under Saddam Hussein's regime.
Assyrian and Chaldean Christians likely make up between 2 and 3 percent of Iraq's population, but represent 10 to 15 percent of the Iraqi refugees who have registered for resettlement.
"Minorities are overrepresented in our registration because they do not see the potential to return to Iraq," Harper said.
The San Joaquin Valley is a magnet for Assyrian refugees because it's home to a nearly 100-year-old Assyrian community with roots in Turlock. Stanislaus County accepted 164 Iraqi refugees last year, most of them Assyrian Christians, according to people who helped them settle.
Harper said some refugees are beginning to return to Iraq. About 1.5 million Iraqi refugees displaced by the war are believed to be living in Syria and Jordan. Another 1.6 million likely are displaced from their homes inside Iraq.
Harper said about 200,000 probably have returned to their native cities, but others are going back and forth from safe havens to the homes they fled.
"The Iraqis are keeping their options open and their passports handy," he said.
The UNHCR this week revised its guidelines about Iraqi refugees, scaling down the categories of Iraqis that it says should be granted asylum in all cases.
Central Iraq remains unstable, and refugees from those provinces should be granted asylum, the UNHCR said. Those provinces include Baghdad, Diyala and Ninevah.
Security has improved enough in Iraq's southern provinces and the western province of Al Anbar for countries to consider refugee applications from those areas on an individual basis rather than with a blanket recommendation from the United Nations to accept the asylum seekers. Previously, only Iraq's northern provinces were considered safe enough for some refugees to have the requests for asylum denied.
That said, the UNHCR contends minorities, single women, political activists and Iraqis who have worked for Western countries should be granted asylum because they face discrimination or persecution in Iraq.
Harper emphasized that Iraq is in a tenuous position as the United States reduces its presence in the country. He said Iraqis don't want a permanent U.S. presence, but recognize that the "surge" of American forces in 2008 yielded considerable security gains.
"We've got to be very careful in the way the U.S. disengages in Iraq," he said. "While the military may be downsizing, we've got to compensate that with a scaling up of the humanitarian development in Iraq so we don't create an Iraqi refugee problem that we're still talking about in 10 years."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2366.