News Stories, 9 December 2003
ASHRAFI CAMP, Iran, December 9 (UNHCR) – Small groups of Iraqi refugees continue going back to southern Iraq with UNHCR assistance, with convoys returning from Iran and Saudi Arabia this week.
On Monday, 210 people left Ashrafi camp in Iran's Khuzestan province in four buses and 14 trucks filled with their belongings. They were processed and given landmine-awareness training at a transit centre near the Shalamcheh border before crossing back into Iraq. Upon reaching Basra in the south, they received repatriation packages containing mattresses, blankets, cooking utensils, and tents, where necessary.
This was the second organised convoy to return from Iran after months of arduous negotiations between UNHCR and the authorities in Iran and Iraq.
The UN refugee agency has repeatedly stressed that it does not promote returns to Iraq because of insecurity in parts of the country, a lack of humanitarian access and aid, and poor economic conditions that cannot support mass returns.
However, many Iraqi refugees have gone back spontaneously without UNHCR assistance, crossing the heavily-mined Iran-Iraq border on their own. The refugee agency decided to facilitate returns partly to minimise such risks.
"Mine-awareness training is extremely important, especially for the children," said Maryam Ghahremani of ANSAR, the Iranian foundation that conducts the training at the transit centre. "If they don't know, they see a mine, and they think it is a toy. We only have 45 minutes with them, but that can make all the difference."
At the beginning of this year, Iran hosted some 202,000 Iraqi refugees, most of whom had fled their homes during the first Iran-Iraq war 20 years ago. The fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April this year opened the door for many to go home.
"I am so happy to see Iraq again. I am going to see my family after 13 years," said Madjedeh Jaber Abdollah before leaving Ashrafi camp for Basra. "And my children will grow up in their homeland – that is the most important thing of all, they'll be educated in their own country."
UNHCR will arrange further return convoys from Iran upon the request of refugees seeking help to return.
Meanwhile, a separate group of 420 Iraqi refugees returned to southern Iraq from Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp on Tuesday. Since the start of repatriation convoys from Rafha in July, more than 4,200 Iraqi refugees have gone back to southern Iraq. Only some 1,100 refugees remain in the camp, which was opened in 1991 and initially sheltered 33,000 Iraqis.