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Iraq repatriation: First group due to leave Saudi Arabia today

Briefing Notes, 29 July 2003

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 29 July 2003, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

We expect the first convoy of refugees returning to Iraq since the fall of the previous government to leave Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp this evening. More than 240 Iraqis will be leaving in the convoy, which is expected to cross into southern Iraq early tomorrow (Wednesday) morning. As soon as we have confirmation that the convoy has left Rafha camp this evening, we will advise through a press release.

The planned overnight convoy, five buses accompanied by five trucks transporting personal belongings, will be escorted from Rafha, in northern Saudi Arabia, through Kuwait and into the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Wednesday morning. UNHCR has been closely coordinating the return movement with the Saudi and Kuwaiti authorities, and Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority.

Some refugees are desperate to go back to Iraq and rejoin their families. Beginning in April, Rafha's refugees began applying for return, and held several small sit-ins to bring attention to their requests to repatriate.

We expect more than 3,600 refugees to leave the camp and return to Iraq before the end of the year in convoys set to depart from Rafha at 10-day intervals. Rafha shelters some 5,200 Iraqis, the last of more than 33,000 who once lived in the remote desert site which has received unprecedented levels of assistance from the Saudi government.

More than 25,000 Iraqis were resettled from Rafha over the years, while 3,500 returned to Iraq the last group of Iraqis to return left the camp last December.

We believe that as the situation inside Iraq improves, more refugees will be seeking to go back with UNHCR assistance. Of the some 1 million Iraqi refugees and other people of concern to UNHCR worldwide, as many as 500,000 could seek help to return to Iraq, with significant numbers expected in 2004.

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Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

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Hassan is a qualified surgeon, but by a twist of fate he now finds himself specializing in the treatment of refugees. In 2006, as conflict raged in Iraq, he spent 10 weeks treating hundreds of ill and injured Iraqis at a refugee camp in eastern Syria.

Six years later his own world turned upside down. Fleeing the bloodshed in his native Syria, Doctor Hassan escaped to neighbouring Iraq in May 2012 and sought refuge in the homeland of his former patients. "I never imagined that I would one day be a refugee myself," he says. "It's like a nightmare."

Like many refugees, Hassan looked for ways to put his skills to use and support his family. At Domiz Refugee Camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, he found work in a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières. He works long hours, mainly treating diarrhoea and other preventable illnesses. More than half of his patients are Syrian refugee children - not unlike his own two boys.

During the two days that photographer Brian Sokol followed Hassan, he rarely stood still for more than a few minutes. His day was a blur of clinical visits punctuated by quick meals and hurried hellos. When not working in the clinic, he was making house calls to refugees' tents late into the night.

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