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UNHCR stockpiles aid for returning Iraqi refugees

UNHCR stockpiles aid for returning Iraqi refugees

Trucks bearing aid supplies for returning refugees are arriving in Iraq as repatriation convoys bring home long-time exiles to rapturous songs of welcome.
31 July 2003
Besides Iraqi returnees, UNHCR's relief items will also help displaced Palestinian refugees living in makeshift shelters in Baghdad. Photo courtesy of and

BASRA, Iraq, July 31 (UNHCR) - Truckloads of relief supplies destined for returning refugees arrived in southern Iraq today as aid workers from the UN refugee agency prepared to receive more repatriation convoys of Iraqis coming home after years spent in remote desert camps.

On Thursday, seven trucks loaded with relief aid rolled into Basra carrying tents, blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, plastic sheets, mattresses and soap from UNHCR's regional warehouse in Jordan. A similar number of trucks is expected to reach Basra later in the week to ensure that the agency has sufficient supplies on hand for up to 5,000 people.

Earlier this year, UNHCR stored emergency relief supplies in countries bordering Iraq due to fears that large numbers of refugees might flee a long war. As the danger of large refugee flows fades and small numbers of Iraqi exiles return home, the agency has opted to move the goods into Iraq.

The relief items being transferred by UNHCR will be distributed to Iraqi returnees as well as to displaced persons and needy refugees sheltering in Iraq, including Iranians, Palestinians and others who may require assistance.

In all, 48 trucks have been dispatched this week from UNHCR's regional warehouse in Jordan. In addition to the stocks going to Basra, tens of thousands of items are being sent to Baghdad.

UNHCR sent its first convoy of aid into Iraq in May with tents and other emergency relief supplies for Palestinian refugees living in makeshift shelters at a disused sports club after they were forced from their homes and robbed in the weeks following the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

Next week, the refugee agency plans to dispatch a C-130 Hercules cargo plane carrying three prefabricated warehouses and an additional 120 tents to Basra from its stockpile in Iskenderun, Turkey.

Meanwhile, the first UN convoy of refugees to come back to Iraq since the fall of Saddam's government reached Basra on Wednesday after travelling from Rafha refugee camp in the remote northern reaches of Saudi Arabia.

These returnees arrived home well aware of the rigours of today's Iraq. Insecurity, insufficient water and electricity supplies, the country's devastated economy and the population's dependence on UN food, prevent the UN from encouraging refugee returns for the time being.

For the moment, the UN refugee agency is assisting only those Iraqis who insist on returning immediately. UNHCR, as well as Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority, would prefer to see most Iraqi exiles delay their return until 2004 or 2005, when the situation inside the war-ravaged and sanction-wearied country is expected to have improved.

Only 3,600 Iraqis are expected to leave Rafha camp before the end of this year through convoys held at 10-day intervals. In neighbouring Iran, only some 200 Iraqis have so far signed up to leave Ashrafi camp, from where convoys are expected to begin in August.

This week's returnees from Rafha camp were the last of some 33,000 people who had fled into Saudi Arabia during the final stages of the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing repression of a Shiite-led rebellion. They were met at UNHCR's transit centre near the campus of Basra University by tearful relatives who embraced them, singing rapturously:

"Saddam's time is over
His palaces and prisons are gone
Look at the happy faces of the people

Other joyous family members who had awaited their relatives' return for the last 12 years chanted:

"Keep your brothers always for life, don't talk badly about them
Without your brother you are like a bird without wings
Your brother, whatever he did, let him do
One day he will come back to the fold and remember
He is part of this family

UNHCR is planning to help up to 500,000 Iraqis to repatriate over the next few years, while also aiding displaced persons return to their homes. The agency is also providing assistance to the more than 90,000 principally Palestinian, Iranian and Turkish refugees in Iraq.

Over the coming months, UNHCR will shift additional goods from its regional stockpiles into Iraq so that as the pace of returns increases, families will have the emergency aid they need to re-establish themselves in their communities.