Iraqis prepare to leave remote desert camp

News Stories, 28 July 2003

© UNHCR/P.Moumtzis
Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp used to host more than 33,000 Iraqi refugees. It now houses 5,200, many of whom want to go home.

GENEVA, July 28 (UNHCR) Several thousand Iraqi refugees are set to start returning home this week as the UN refugee agency kicks off repatriation movements from Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp.

The more than 240 Iraqi refugees are set to leave Rafha late on Tuesday (July 29) in a convoy of five buses and trucks carrying baggage they had accumulated during the long years of exile.

The convoy is expected to enter Iraq early Wednesday morning after transiting Kuwait overnight.

The refugee agency expects more than 3,600 of the 5,200 refugees in Rafha camp to repatriate before the end of the year. Regular repatriation convoys, each transporting at least 250 refugees back to Iraq, are planned by UNHCR, the Saudi authorities and Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).

Willing refugees are expected to go back in convoys leaving Rafha at 10-day intervals, with future movements heading northwards across the desert border and into Iraq bound for Najaf, Nasiriya and other communities.

"Over the next few months, UNHCR expects to see small numbers of Iraqis go home, people desperate to end their years in exile," said UNHCR Special Envoy for Iraq, Dennis McNamara. "But we don't think large-scale returns will begin until 2004, when the situation inside Iraq should have further stabilised."

"We are happy to help Rafha's long-time refugees return home, but the situation in their country remains shaky," McNamara added, referring to security problems, the collapse of infrastructure and local government, and the difficult economic situation facing Iraq.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, many of Rafha's refugees have been begging to return home. Groups of the desperate exiles have held short hunger strikes to pressure relief officials to start up the repatriation convoys.

More than 1,800 of Rafha's refugees are single males, long frustrated by life in the remote desert camp. They saw April's collapse of the regime that had sent them into exile as a sign that they could now return home. UNHCR believes that the start of the repatriation movements should ease the pressure caused by recent protests in the camp.

Both the Saudi and Kuwaiti authorities have been supportive of UNHCR's plans to help the refugees return home. Over the years, Saudi Arabia has ensured unprecedented levels of assistance to Rafha's refugees.

"We're not encouraging anyone to return to Iraq, only aiding those people who are so anxious to repatriate that failure to respect their wishes could create further problems," McNamara said.

Rafha camp was constructed 12 years ago and once sheltered more than 33,000 refugees, many of them men who had fled Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War and following the collapse of a Shiite-led uprising in the south that was brutally put down by Saddam's forces.

Over the years, more than 25,000 Iraqi refugees were resettled from Rafha to third countries, while only slightly over 3,500 repatriated to their troubled homeland.

With this week's start of the sanctioned, though small, return movements, UNHCR plans to send staff to visit the returnees to see how they have fared upon going home.

Previously, due to restrictions instituted by the Baghdad regime, UNHCR was not able to monitor refugees spontaneously going back. The agency currently has dozens of workers based throughout Iraq and is rapidly expanding its activities. It can now visit the refugees' home communities and freely share details without endangering its workers on the ground, which had been a cause for worry under the previous regime.

In Iran, aid workers have just completed the registration of more than 200 Iraqi refugees in Asrafi camp, near Ahwaz, who have also been seeking support to return. In co-ordination with the CPA, UNHCR expects to see the first convoy since the US-led invasion transport 100 refugees back to Basra in early August. Further movements of refugees seeking to leave Iran are planned for the coming months.

UNHCR's repatriation plan notes that of the some 1 million Iraqi refugees and other individuals of concern, up to 500,000 may seek its assistance to return home, principally from Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.