Iran: First repatriation from Iraq under UNHCR auspices

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Rupert Colville to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The first group of Iranian refugees to repatriate from Iraq under UNHCR auspices returned home on Saturday, as 125 refugees crossed at the Al Shalamshah border point under an agreement signed in March 2001 between the governments of Iran and Iraq and UNHCR.

UNHCR is very pleased to see this repatriation finally underway. We have been working very closely with both the Iraqi and the Iranian authorities. Saturday's movement follows a series of recent meetings by the bilateral Iran/Iraq Commission on Humanitarian Affairs in Baghdad that have also advanced the voluntary repatriation. We expect a second convoy in the coming days.

So far, about 8,000 individuals have applied to repatriate from Iraq under the auspices of this voluntary programme. To date, the Iranian authorities have approved the applications of 480 families. The returnees will be permitted to take up to US $1,000 out of Iraq with them. The returnees on Saturday had five truckloads of personal effects, plus several private vehicles.

UNHCR staff in Iraq, led by our Chief of Mission in Baghdad, accompanied the returning refugees up to the border. The 125 refugees, some 21 families, were accommodated the night before in the southern Iraqi city of Basra before proceeding to the Al Shalamshah / Khosravi border crossing on Saturday morning. Once inside Iran, they were met by officials of Iran's Bureau for Alien and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) and transported to a nearby transit camp. Returnees who do not have an immediate destination - property or relatives - will be able to stay at the transit camp until they identify a more permanent destination.

About 23,000 Iranian refugees have been in Iraq since the 1980-1988 Iran/Iraq War. An estimated 16,000 are ethnic Kurds living either in the Al-Tash refugee camp or close to the northern Iraqi city of Erbil. A further 7,000 Iranian Arabs live in southern Iraq. Most have been living in well-equipped camps, which have become de facto 'villages'.

Iranian authorities say they will recognise any educational qualifications the returnees received in Iraq, as well as Iraqi birth and marriage certificates. Exit fees for foreign nationals will be waived in the case of Iraqi women married to Iranian men. It is not clear if the same will apply to the reverse scenario, should it present itself.

Although no official amnesty for the Iraq caseload has been announced, the Iranian authorities have verbally assured both the returnees - during meetings with them in Iraq - and UNHCR that, except for breaches of the common law, no legal action will be taken against any returnees.

Voluntary repatriation from Iran to Iraq has been underway for several years now. Between 1994 and the end of June 2002, a total of 27,259 Iraqi Arabs returned to Iraq from Iran. Between 1999 up until the end of June, a total of 16,855 Iraqi Kurds returned. According to Iranian government figures, there are approximately 220,000 Iraqis in Iran.

BAFIA has not requested material assistance from UNHCR for the new programme. Any assistance which may be provided by UNHCR is likely to be directed towards extremely vulnerable cases.