Iraq repatriation: First group due to leave Saudi Arabia today
This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today's press briefing 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.