Closing ceremony | Thematic Round Tables on Prosecution, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (PRR) Practices, SRSG Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert Keynote Address
09 April 2022
Al Nahrain Centre for Strategic Studies
Baghdad, 9 April 2022
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today.
In the past two months, a series of roundtables between the Government of Iraq and the United Nations were organised to enable us to collectively address the many critical and sensitive questions surrounding the return, rehabilitation, reintegration and, where necessary, the prosecution, of individuals displaced in North-eastern Syria.
There is no denying it: this is a uniquely challenging context. And while certain developments deserve our full commendation and support, others are deeply preoccupying - reminding us that time is of the essence. Reminding us that decisive, collective action is urgently needed.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is difficult to overstate the complexity of the task at hand for Iraq: in al-Hol Camp, mere hours from the Iraqi border, nearly 30,000 Iraqis with varying degrees of association to ISIL ¬— including victims of ISIL, and others with no association at all— remain in limbo. Their humanitarian and security conditions, already precarious, have deteriorated over the past 18 months. Recent deadly clashes represent only the latest examples of a steady wave of violence in the camp since late 2020.
It is also difficult to overstate the youth of this population: 3 out of 5 residents of al-Hol are under 17; one in 5 is under 5 years of age. These innocent children have only ever known this harsh environment; many of them are being denied the most basic rights, including education.
Now, over the past 3 years, you’ve heard me repeat that the legacy of yesterday’s fight against ISIL could very easily turn into tomorrow’s war, that we should not wait for young children to become of age in a camp like al-Hol. These children find themselves at risk of forced recruitment and exposure to violent extremism. Fact is, the current situation is not sustainable. And keeping people indefinitely in the restricted and poor conditions of these camps ultimately creates greater protection and security risks than taking them back in a controlled manner. In other words: a continued status quo is - without a doubt - the riskiest option.
Iraq’s decision to resume voluntary returns in early 2021 is therefore particularly welcome. In fact, in terms of proactively taking steps to fulfil its obligations to repatriate its nationals, Iraq has set an example on the global stage. Some 450 families, or nearly 1,800 individuals, have been repatriated since May 2021. And as thousands of Iraqis are still out there, the Iraqi authorities do realize that they cannot stop there.
The United Nations is particularly appreciative of Iraq’s intention to not only continue but also to accelerate repatriations. And yes, we are ready to continue providing the required post-return humanitarian, protection and reintegration assistance. And we truly hope that Member States and donors are with us on this.
Definitely worth mentioning here is the fact that this initial success is the product of robust whole-of-government coordination and cooperation. Prime Minister al-Kadhimi and National Security Advisor al-Araji have been highly instrumental in ensuring that a wide array of ministries and institutions deliver concerted efforts towards a shared goal.
And of course, the Ministry of Migration and Displacement also deserves recognition for its role in managing the Jeddah 1 Centre: the ministry manages the centre, with UN agencies and their national and international partners supporting with healthcare, including mental health and psychosocial support, child protection, legal assistance, education, food security, and livelihood services. In other words: it is not only a whole of government, but also a whole of UN effort, including IOM, UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, WHO, and UNFPA, and our many partners
Ladies and gentlemen,
Engaging directly with returnees, our agencies have observed first-hand their relief at having left behind the hellish conditions of al-Hol in returning to Iraq. However, these returnees continue to be greatly concerned about the safety of their relatives who remain at al-Hol: continued efforts to prevent family separations are critical and appreciated, despite the enormously challenging operational conditions in northeast Syria.
Returnees in Jeddah 1 are also anxious about their own futures, eager to move on to their areas of origin or relocate elsewhere in Iraq. Nearly 130 families or 500 individuals have now departed Jeddah 1 to their areas of origin or a third location. Crucially, a Visitor’s Centre has been established to enable residents of Jeddah 1 to meet with their relatives on a regular basis. While this is most welcome, going forward, it will be important to establish benchmarks and reduce the transit time as much as possible.
Admittedly, significant challenges remain even after families depart Jeddah 1: in some cases, community members in areas of origin have refused to accept returnees; in other cases, families have been forced to relocate due to damaged or destroyed housing, lack of services, or lack of access to livelihoods.
Hence, closer cooperation between the government and the UN will prove essential to ensure that reintegration needs, including community acceptance, are assessed prior to departure from Jeddah 1.
The incremental approach - followed thus far - has allowed the Government of Iraq and the UN to identify challenges and solutions, improving the process over time. But as we move forward, and returnee profiles become more complex, new and thorny challenges will undoubtedly arise.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why it is so important to continue and expand our dialogue with the government on advancing a rights-based approach that of course provides accountability for individuals who have committed crimes but also ensures holistic reintegration support.
Building on these recent discussions and round tables, expanded UN support to the Government of Iraq will be guided by the Global Framework for the provision of “whole of UN” support to the return of third country nationals from Iraq / Syria.
For those not familiar with this Global Framework: it lays out a collaborative approach with governments and pooled funding mechanisms under which the UN can support Member States on the protection, repatriation, prosecution, rehabilitation, and reintegration of returnees from Syria, who may have alleged or actual links or family ties to designated terrorist groups.
Using this Global Framework, the UN and the Government of Iraq, building on years of partnership in addressing the many post-ISIL challenges, can jointly identify gaps and needs, and prioritize areas of multilateral support, leveraging specific mandates within the UN family.
And importantly, having played an exemplary leadership role in many respects so far, the Government of Iraq can greatly contribute to the global understanding of contemporary prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration questions.
Ladies and gentlemen, in closing:
Transnational challenges call for transnational solutions, and the United Nations looks forward to our continued partnership with the Government of Iraq in shaping and implementing these solutions for the greater global good.
Let’s face it: al-Hol is a ticking time bomb. If it goes off, it will impact not only the region but also far beyond. Defusing it should be our collective priority.
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq