UN Humanitarian Briefing on Iraq
There have been no reports of refugee arrivals in the region.
UNHCR teams, accompanied by Iranian authorities, have visited several areas along the border to look into reports of groups of displaced Iraqis, mainly from northern Iraq, who have fled towards border areas near Iran.
This week, a team went to the Bashmaq border crossing about seven kilometres from the Iraqi town of Penjwin, a mountainous, snow-covered area where the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had reported that 22,000 Iraqi Kurds who had left Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk had gathered in mosques, schools and houses of friends and relatives. This was the largest group that was reported to have moved to the border close to Iran since the war broke out in Iraq. We were told that some of these Iraqis had gone back to Sulaymaniyah after hearing that the situation there had improved. At Bashmaq village just 200 metres away on the Iraqi side, we were told that 30 to 40 people had gone there from Sulaymaniyah but had returned because there was no food in the village and the situation had improved in Sulaymaniyah.
We have checked out several other reports of smaller groups of Iraqis who had gone close to Iran, but Iranian authorities tell us that so far there have been no attempts by displaced Iraqis to cross the border into Iran. The Iranians have maintained that their borders are sealed but that Iraqis whose lives are in danger would be allowed to enter the country.
In the meantime, preparations by Iran to receive Iraqi refugees continue. Construction of basic infrastructure, such as water and sanitation facilities, continues in four camp sites in Khuzestan, Kermanshah and Ilam provinces. These four, with a total capacity for 60,000 people, are among 10 sites that have been prepared to receive refugees. The other sites will be opened if needed. We are also continuing to stockpile relief items - tents, blankets, jerry cans, kitchen sets - in our warehouses in the towns of Ahwaz and Kermanshah in western Iran.
We plan to deploy 30 staff on Sunday to ensure the monitoring of Syria's border areas and to expand our early warning capacity. Our main hub will be at Al Hasakah, from where we'll oversee the Al Hawl camp and monitor the Al Yarubiyeh border crossing north-west of Mosul, as well as the northernmost Faysh Khabur frontier post, west of Zakho. Teams will also operate from Tadmur to monitor the Al Tanf border and Dayr Az Zawr, to observe the Abu Kamal frontier.
Works are underway at the long-established Al Hawl camp. We are also studying the need to open a second refugee camp at Sabaa Biar, north-west of the Al Tanf crossing. The Syrian government is finishing work on transit sites at the Al Tanf, Abu Kamal and the Al Yarubiyeh border crossings that they've identified in the context of our joint contingency planning. UNHCR has an existing stockpile of relief items for 10,000 people in Syria, with additional items available at our regional stockpiles at Iskenderun, Turkey, and Aqaba, Jordan.
We have heard of Iraqis who have arrived on their own in Syria but who have decided to stay with family and friends in major cities. We will be working with a local Syrian relief society to identify if any of these Iraqis have any special needs.
Temporary Protection for Iraqis
We have distributed new guidelines to governments this week advising that asylum claims from individual Iraqi citizens not be processed for an initial period of three months, during which Iraqis should instead be granted temporary protection.
In a separate March 7 memorandum, we had already urged asylum countries to halt forced returns of Iraqis. Now our legal experts are advising a suspension of individual asylum procedures, both of pending cases and new arrivals, and the granting of temporary protection instead.
Within the framework of international solidarity and burden-sharing, UNHCR urged that Iraqi asylum seekers should not be returned to countries in the conflict region either, because a possible major influx of Iraqis could put major strains on these neighbouring states.
More than 51,000 Iraqis claimed asylum worldwide last year, forming by far the largest single group of asylum seekers in industrialised countries. The top five industrialised countries receiving asylum requests from Iraqis during 2002 were the United Kingdom (14,900), Germany (10,400), Sweden (5,400), Austria (4,600) and Greece (2,600). Iraqis are one of the largest refugee groups worldwide. At the beginning of 2002, some 400,000 Iraqi refugees were spread across some 90 countries.
"Temporary protection" is a collective protection scheme granted for whole groups of asylum seekers. It is usually applied when mass movements of refugees occur whose reasons for flight are obvious. It then proves impractical and time consuming to verify those refugees on a case-by-case basis.