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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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Special Envoy Angelina Jolie in Iraq

The UN refugee agency's Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visited Iraq this week, meeting with Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqi citizens in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She offered support to 3.3 million people uprooted by conflict in the country and highlighted their needs.

Jolie spoke to people with dramatic stories of escape, including some who walked through the night and hid by day on their road freedom. She also met women who were among the 196 ethnic Yazidis recently released by militants and now staying in the informal settlement at Khanke.

"It is shocking to see how the humanitarian situation in Iraq has deteriorated since my last visit," said Jolie. "On top of large numbers of Syrian refugees, 2 million Iraqis were displaced by violence in 2014 alone. Many of these innocent people have been uprooted multiple times as they seek safety amidst shifting frontlines."

Photos by UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

Special Envoy Angelina Jolie in Iraq

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Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

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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.

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