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Last group of Iranian Kurd refugees starts relocation from endangered Iraq camp


Last group of Iranian Kurd refugees starts relocation from endangered Iraq camp

On Wednesday, registration of a group of 439 Iranian Kurd refugees began in Kawa, northern Iraq. The new site will accommodate the last 2,000 refugees left in the decades-old Al Tash camp, which has been beset by violence and insecurity since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.
10 November 2005
One of the first refugees to move into the Kawa site in northern Iraq tries out the new washing facilities.

GENEVA, November 10 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said Thursday it has started rehousing the last 2,000 Iranian Kurd refugees remaining in a decades-old camp in Iraq, which has been badly affected by the security situation since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003.

Al Tash camp in central Iraq was home for more than two decades to over 12,000 Iranian Kurdish refugees who fled Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the security situation rapidly deteriorated and more and more refugees decided to leave the camp, either to return home or look for a more secure existence elsewhere.

Located around 60 km from Fallujah and 12 km from Ramadi, Al Tash was badly affected by the heavy fighting in the area in the autumn of 2004. In November 2004, the police station located inside the camp was attacked. The previously well-provisioned camp was also suffering sporadic cuts in its electricity and water supplies, medical care and educational activities. The chronic insecurity in this part of Iraq has also meant that UNHCR, its partners and the government authorities have been limited in their ability to respond to the refugees' needs. As a result, by February of this year its population had dwindled to under 5,000.

As the situation continued to deteriorate during the course of 2005, more and more of the camp's inhabitants began to look for a way out. Some went home to Iran, some headed for other countries, some were resettled, some were stuck at the Jordanian border, while others moved of their own accord to Northern Iraq.

In June this year, as a result of the continuing dire security situation in the area, the UN refugee agency started to look for an alternative site to accommodate all the remaining Al Tash refugees. UNHCR and the Kurdistan Regional Government signed an agreement in September, allowing for the construction of semi-permanent housing for more than 2,000 people from Al Tash in Kawa, a site some 35 km south of Erbil. UNHCR's implementing partner started work immediately, and in the space of six weeks the first sections of a temporary accommodation site with winterised tents, electricity, and water and sanitation facilities was erected.

On Wednesday 9 November, UNHCR and a local NGO started registering and installing the first group of 69 Iranian Kurd families - 439 individuals - in Kawa. The group left Al Tash a few weeks ago, partly to escape the continuing insecurity and partly because they were encouraged by the news that a new site was being prepared for them. The refugees will be temporarily housed in the tents while, with the help of expert advisers, they set about constructing semi-permanent homes on the site.

The new arrivals immediately started sorting out their tents. The women began cleaning and organizing the luggage they'd brought with them from Al Tash; children started ferrying water from the tanks set up near the tents; and the men set about sealing the tents to prevent drafts.

"Obviously 23 years of being refugees equipped us with some skills," one refugee commented wryly, when UNHCR staff on the spot remarked how fast and well-organized they were.

"We are very happy and relieved that the Al Tash refugees can now start moving to a safer location, as life has been very difficult and dangerous for them," said Walpurga Englbrecht, currently in charge of UNHCR's Iraq operation from Amman. "UNHCR is assisting the refugees with the relocation and will provide them with support on the ground, reinstallation allowances, as well as school and health care."

The last 1,500 Iranian Kurds who are still residing in Al Tash, are scheduled to start moving to Kawa later this month. The second block, which will accommodate 70 families, is expected to be ready by mid-November. By mid-December, UNHCR expects to have settled all the remaining refugees from the camp in Kawa. At the same time, UNHCR is strongly encouraging some 200 refugees who are stranded on the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Jordan border, to move up to the North as well.

"It has been difficult to find alternative solutions for the Iranian Kurds and we are very grateful for the generosity of the authorities," Englbrecht said. "In the present difficult security climate, however, we can only encourage all the refugees to benefit from the opportunity to start a new life in the North. Remaining stranded at the border is no life for anyone, especially not for a child."

Earlier this year, some 200 refugees from Al Tash - half of whom are children - became stranded at the border, while attempting to enter Jordan. The refugees are presently housed in tents on the Iraqi side, and are being provided with food, water and medical care. But the current location is far from safe, access remains a huge problem, and there is little prospect of the group being allowed entry into Jordan any time soon - especially after Wednesday's murderous bomb attacks in the Jordanian capital Amman, and the subsequent closure of the country's borders.

"Winter is fast approaching and a solution must be found urgently. Joining the other refugees in the North is the only option under the current circumstances," Englbrecht said.

In the meantime, the remaining residents of Al Tash camp - haunted by serious security incidents in the camp, including operations by multi-national forces, frequent appearances of armed men in the vicinity of the camp, three refugee deaths and two kidnappings in the past 8 months, as well as continuing water shortages and interrupted electricity supplies - are ready to move. Convinced by others who went before them, the residents have started packing up and deregistering their children from schools and the local public distribution system, in preparation for the move.

Kawa is the second site in northern Iraq to be developed by UNHCR and its partners. In 2004, a total of 277 families from Al Tash camp moved into accommodation constructed in Barika near one of the other big northern Iraqi cities, Sulaymaniyah.