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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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Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Tens of thousands of people have fled to Erbil and Duhok governorates in Iraq's Kurdistan region over the past week, sheltering in schools, mosques, churches and temporary camps following a surge of violence in parts of central and northern Iraq. UNHCR and its partners have been working to meet the urgent shelter needs. The refugee agency has delivered close to 1,000 tents to a transit camp being built by the authorities and NGOs at Garmawa, near Duhok.

Many of the people arriving from Mosul at checkpoints between Ninewa and governorate and Iraq's Kurdistan region have limited resources and cannot afford to pay for shelter. Some people stay with family, while others are staying in hotels and using up their meagre funds.

In the village of Alqosh, some 150 people from 20 families, with little more than the clothes on their back, have been living in several overcrowded classrooms in a primary school for the past week. One member of the group said they had lived in a rented apartment in Mosul and led a normal family life. But in Alqosh, they feared for the welfare and education of their children and the presence of snakes and scorpions.

Iraq Crisis: Finding a Place to Stay

Iraq: Massive displacement from Mosul

In the past few days, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have fled fighting in the northern city of Mosul and other areas. UNHCR staff are on the ground to monitor the outflow and help those in need. The needs are immense, but UNHCR is working to provide shelter, protection, and emergency items, including tents. Many of the displaced left their homes without belongings and some lack money for housing, food, water or medical care. They arrive at checkpoints between Ninewa governorate and the Kurdistan region with no idea of where to go next, or how to pay expenses.

UN agencies, humanitarian groups, and government officials are coordinating efforts to do what they can to aid those in need. UN agencies are making an emergency request for additional support. UNHCR is hoping to provide emergency kits as well as thousands of tents. UNHCR and its partners will also be working to protect and help the displaced.

The exodus in the north comes on top of massive displacement this year in the western Iraqi governorate of Anbar, where fighting since January has forced some half-a-million people to flee the province or seek shelter in safer areas.

Iraq: Massive displacement from Mosul

An Infant's Journey to Safety

Three days after giving birth to her fourth child, a girl she named Hawler, Peroz concluded that the situation in her hometown of Hassake, Syria, was too dangerous for her children. She decided to make the difficult journey to northern Iraq. Along the way, she and Hawler were sick. "I was terrified the baby might die," said Peroz, 27.

Although the border was closed, guards felt compassion for the newborn child and let Peroz's family enter. A few days later Peroz and her children were reunited with their father and now they are living with hundreds of other refugees in a small park on the outskirts of Erbil.

Battling mosquitoes and soaring daytime temperatures, and with little more than blankets for comfort and a breakfast of bread and cheese for nourishment, Peroz and her husband hope to be transferred to a new tented settlement.

Over the past few weeks, tens of thousands of Syrians have flooded into northern Iraq, fleeing violence. With existing camps at full capacity, many refugee families are finding shelter anywhere they can. The local government has started transferring people from Qushtapa Park to a nearby camp. UNHCR is registering the refugees, as well as providing tents and life-saving assistance.

An Infant's Journey to Safety

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