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Insecurity hinders relief operations in Iraq

Insecurity hinders relief operations in Iraq

Relief aid is getting out to displaced Iraqis despite an upsurge in fighting and the kidnapping of foreigners that have caused many aid agencies to withdraw remaining staff from Iraq. Recent bomb attacks in Basra have also delayed the resumption of repatriation convoys from Iran back to southern Iraq.
28 April 2004
UNHCR and its partners distributing emergency health kits in Basra, southern Iraq.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 28 (UNHCR) - Despite an upsurge in fighting and tension in central and southern Iraq, UNHCR, with the help of its humanitarian partners, is distributing emergency relief items to people who have been displaced from Fallujah.

In cooperation with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Première Urgence, Islamic Relief and Intersos, over recent weeks the UN refugee agency has distributed more than 6,500 blankets, over 1,100 cooking stoves, 3,000 mattresses, 1,000 plastic tarpaulins, 1,000 female hygiene kits, and 375 jerry cans to displaced people. Five medical kits with basic supplies for more than 50,000 people have been distributed around Baghdad and Najaf, together with additional medical supplies.

Distributing even this limited aid has not been easy, as most relief agencies have withdrawn their expatriate workers from the centre and south of the country in recent weeks due to the deteriorating security situation and the threat of kidnapping. Many local Iraqi aid workers remain in place and continue to oversee some projects.

"The dire security situation at the moment, with the likely possibility of kidnappings, has in recent days led to the relocation of many international NGO staff from the south and centre of Iraq," said Abdi Aziz Osman, who oversees UNHCR's operations from Amman, Jordan.

"We have met with many NGOs here in Amman and are following the situation closely," Osman said. "It is clear that the recent developments further undermine UNHCR's capacity to operate effectively inside Iraq, where the needs just get bigger and bigger."

UNHCR does not have exact figures concerning the scale of the recent displacement inside Iraq. Most of the people who have fled Fallujah in recent weeks are living in temporary camps, mosques or with families. Estimates of movement by Iraqi civilians fleeing the embattled city put the number of newly displaced persons at more than 50,000 people.

Meanwhile, in the south of the country, the refugee agency's staff are not reporting any major population displacement despite tension around cities like Najaf. UNHCR's staff in the south said that there are some reports of shortages, including of essential items like food and medicine due to delays in deliveries over the past weeks as many goods still arrive over the main highway through the centre of the country.

Concerns have been expressed about the quality of drinking water, particularly in Basra. UN agencies and their NGO partners are regularly meeting in Amman and Kuwait to try to find immediate solutions to these and other problems.

Despite the difficult situation, UNHCR is still assisting non-Iraqi refugees in Iraq (Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians and Turkish refugees) through several government ministries and NGO partners. The refugee agency is very worried about the effect of the deteriorating security situation on the country's refugee population. The security situation facing some 520 Syrian refugees in Baghdad has reportedly deteriorated, and UNHCR heard that in recent weeks some 40 families were illegally evicted from their homes and are now living with relatives or friends. A Syrian refugee even saw an attempt on his life while out driving.

In Al Tash refugee camp, west of Baghdad, two children were killed and other family members were injured when the home of an Iranian refugee was hit three weeks ago by a mortar bomb or artillery shell. It is not known who fired on the camp, located about 150 km west of Baghdad.

In northern Iraq, evictions of displaced persons, recent returnees and other vulnerable groups have also been reported, and people living in several public buildings in Mosul and Kirkuk have been threatened with eviction. Elsewhere in the north, UNHCR and its partners are providing assistance to returning Iraqis trying to rebuild their homes and communities.

"We continue providing reintegration support, including housing, water, sanitation, education and health assistance for returning IDP families and the local community in more than 55 villages," said UNHCR's Ilham Abdullayev. "At the same time, we are trying where we can with the help of our partners on the ground to assist with the rehabilitation of basic infrastructure, shelter, water and sanitation."

UNHCR also provides direct support to help build the capacity of Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration, which is the ministry responsible for caring for returning Iraqi refugees, displaced persons, and the country's some 100,000 non-Iraqi refugees.

The UN refugee agency's facilitation of refugee repatriation convoys has been temporarily suspended from Iran and Lebanon since the beginning of April due to the insecurity in southern Iraq and the road closures through the centre of the country.

UNHCR was looking into resuming some return convoys from refugee camps and settlements in Iran back to southern Iraq, but following last week's devastating attacks on the three police stations in Basra and the evacuation of its partner NGOs, the refugee agency cannot resume aiding any Iraqis seeking to go back.