Iraq: security/housing concerns force suspension of convoys for returnees from Iran
Over the last 10 days, UNHCR has temporarily suspended its convoys to Iraq for refugees wishing to return from neighbouring Iran. Crossings into both the south and the north of the country have been interrupted. In the south, convoys have been stopped due to the ongoing fighting in Najaf and the overall security situation in the region. UNHCR has been running convoys from Iran to the southern Iraqi city of Basra since November 2003. These convoys have had to be put on hold on several occasions during the past few months because of security concerns.
In the north, UNHCR has also temporarily suspended the returns of Iraqi Kurd refugees after local authorities in Iraq expressed concerns over the housing situation in the region. UNHCR started facilitating returns through the Haj Omran crossing in northern Iran at the end of June. Since then, five UNHCR convoys have crossed at Haj Omran, carrying a total of 543 Iraqi Kurds who had been living for many years in refugee camps in Iran's Kordestan province. They went back to their home provinces of Sulaymaniah, Erbil, Dohuk and Rania.
However, the local authorities in northern Iraq are worried that some of the returnees do not appear to have houses to go to. A shortage of housing is a crucial issue in northern Iraq, where UNHCR has been working with its partners to help build houses, provide local people with building materials, and help the rehabilitation of public buildings like schools and health clinics. The last convoy through Haj Omran was last Thursday, 12th August, and returns to the north have now been suspended until UNHCR has had further consultations with all parties involved (local authorities, NGOs, and other UN agencies). A meeting is scheduled in early September.
UNHCR is not encouraging Iraqi refugees to return home for the time being, but it is facilitating the repatriation of those who insist on going home. Some 13,000 people have gone back to Iraq from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon with UNHCR's assistance. More than half of them (7,923) came from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which hosts the largest Iraqi refugee population in the world. Returnees receive a package of relief items (tents, blankets, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets) and one-month food ration, as well as travel assistance and mine-awareness training.