Return convoy resumes from Iran to Iraq
SHALAMCHEH, Iran, May 18 (UNHCR) - Seventy-four Iraqi refugees left their camps in Iran yesterday on the first return convoy to Iraq in the last two weeks. The UN refugee agency could not confirm when the next convoy would take place because of continuing insecurity in southern Iraq.
On Monday, the 74 Iraqis left Ansar and Matahari camps in Iran's Khuzestan province. They underwent mine-awareness training at the Shalamcheh border before crossing into Basra in southern Iraq. Upon their arrival, UNHCR's local staff and workers from partner agencies distributed various assistance items, including blankets, plastic tarpaulins, household items and tents for those in need.
Another 88 refugees who had registered for repatriation changed their minds and decided to stay in Iran amid news reports of intensified fighting in Najaf and Karbala over the weekend.
UNHCR has so far helped more than 6,100 Iraqis return from Iran, all people seeking to repatriate despite the fragile situation in their country. Prior to Monday's convoy, the repatriation movement from Iran had been halted since May 5 due to security concerns.
"UNHCR does not encourage Iraqis to go back to their homeland due to the insecurity and the fragile humanitarian and social environment that has prevailed since the fall of the Saddam government a year ago," the agency's spokesman, Ron Redmond, reiterated in Geneva on Tuesday.
However, for refugees who insist on returning to Iraq despite the security problems, UNHCR facilitates their repatriation to ensure that they are aware of potential dangers like landmines and to equip them with basic assistance to help them survive at home.
UNHCR and its partners are currently registering Iraqis who want to repatriate from Jahrom and Sarvestan camps in western Iran's Fars province. The refugee agency has been unable to set a date for the next convoy due to the uncertain security situation in southern Iraq.
UNHCR has also facilitated the return of 4,856 refugees from Saudi Arabia's Rafha refugee camp, which currently only shelters some 480 Iraqis who fled their country in 1991.
The momentum of return to Iraq has been significant since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government last year. Over the last year, more than 120,000 refugees have reportedly returned on their own - without UNHCR assistance - to Iraq's nine southern governorates, where they were registered for food aid under the public distribution system managed by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade.
However, fresh fighting in the centre and south of Iraq may have caused spontaneous returns from Iran to subside in recent months.
Prior to the fall of the Saddam government, there were an estimated 200,000 Iraqi refugees settled in Iran, many of them victims of the widespread expulsion of Shiites by Iraqi authorities that occurred during the Iran-Iraq war more than 20 years ago. Most of the Iraqis were settled among local Iranian host communities, but nearly 50,000 lived in camps mainly in western Iran.
"UNHCR continues to help refugee communities and recent returnees throughout Iraq with the support of various national and international relief agencies, but despite the pressing humanitarian situation in Iraq, donor countries have so far not provided any contributions for our 2004 assistance programme," noted Redmond.
The UN refugee agency needs a further $60 million this year for activities in Iraq and assistance to exiles in neighbouring countries.