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Iraq: Palestinians return from Jordan

Briefing notes

Iraq: Palestinians return from Jordan

25 May 2004

Twenty-six Palestinians who fled Iraq last year during the conflict left UNHCR's Ruweished camp in Jordan's eastern desert last week to go back to Baghdad.

While UNHCR is not promoting return to Iraq, the Palestinians felt they would be better off in Iraq despite the current insecurity and uncertainty. Among those going to Baghdad was a family of nine, while the rest were individuals. UNHCR provided them with assistance to cover their travel expenses and several months of rental support for their first months back in Baghdad, as well as various other assistance items. Last year we registered some 23,000 Palestinians in Baghdad, but estimate the total number in the Iraqi capital is around 30,000.

Several thousand people, including hundreds of Palestinians, fled Iraq for the safety of Jordan during last year's conflict. More than 1,500 are in UNHCR-assisted camps, including some 1,100 people in a makeshift site in the no-man's-land on the Iraqi frontier, and nearly 400 in Jordan's Ruweished refugee camp.

UNHCR has worked very closely over the past year with the Jordanian government, which has long been very hospitable to refugees and found solutions for individual cases. Last year, Jordan accepted 386 Palestinians with Jordanian spouses who had fled Iraq. While the remaining 350 or so Palestinians wanted to go to their homes in the West Bank and Gaza, and even to Israel, UNHCR could not get parties to accept the return of this group, nor are any other states so far willing to accept them.

Most of the people in the desert camps, located adjacent to the main highway linking Iraq with its western neighbour, are Iranian ethnic Kurds who fled their long time refugee camp at Al Tash, 150 km west of Baghdad last April; others include Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis and Iranians. Last week a 12-year-old Iranian ethnic Kurdish boy wandered out of the no-man's-land border camp and was hit and killed by a passing truck while reportedly trying to sell goods along the highway.

Elsewhere in the region, last Thursday UNHCR's 24th repatriation convoy carrying 102 persons returned to Basra in southern Iraq from refugee camps in Iran's Fars Province. The three buses and four trucks were met at the Shalamcheh border crossing by members of Iraq's Civil Defense Force and officials of the Ministry of Repatriation and Reintegration. Once in Basra they received the usual UNHCR repatriation package from our local staff and our NGO partners.

Again, UNHCR is not encouraging people to return to Iraq, and has counselled governments to maintain temporary protection for Iraqis abroad. Nevertheless, for those insisting on returning, UNHCR facilitates convoys in cooperation with the Iraqi authorities. So far, more than 11,100 have returned since last July, mainly from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

In Iran, UNHCR and the authorities are opening a second border crossing at Haj Omran near the northern city of Orumieh. We plan to start facilitating the return of refugees residing in this region beginning next week. Northern Iran hosts many Iraqi ethnic Kurdish refugees who have been seeking to go back for several months. Overall, the Iraqi Ministry of Trade reports that some 120,000 refugees from Iran have spontaneously returned to Iraq's nine southern governorates over the last year, where they have been registered for distribution of food aid. Before the war the number of Iraqis in Iran was estimated at 202,000 people.

Meanwhile, UNHCR last week officially handed over eight playgrounds built for the children of Bam thanks to donations from UNHCR staff worldwide following last December devastating earthquake that killed an estimated 26,000 people. The staff contribution came to about $4,700, and some 17,000 children will benefit from the playgrounds, most of which are located in camps that have been erected to house the tens of thousands of Bam residents left homeless by the earthquake.