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UNHCR returns to Baghdad; assists targeted refugees in southern Iraq

UNHCR returns to Baghdad; assists targeted refugees in southern Iraq

The UN refugee agency has resumed operations in Iraq's three main regions with its return to the capital. It faces new challenges in the south, trying to assist harassed and displaced Iranian refugees while easing local hostilities towards them.
16 May 2003
Young Turkish refugees at Makhmour camp, where UNHCR has re-established services.

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 16 (UNHCR) - Amid increasing reports of refugee harassment and insecurity in Baghdad and southern Iraq, the UN refugee agency has sent its senior staff back to the capital, and is taking steps to ease hostilities against Iranian and Palestinian refugees in post-war Iraq.

On Thursday, UNHCR's senior staff returned to Baghdad for the first time since the war started in March. Besides preparing for the eventual return of up to 500,000 Iraqi refugees, they are also expected to assist Palestinian refugees evicted from their homes in the capital since the end of the war.

Also on Thursday, the agency's staff met Shi'a leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, southern Iraq. The Ayatollah agreed to send a message to four tribes in eastern Iraq's Al Dujaila region, asking them to ease pressure on Iranian refugees living there. In the last month, hundreds of Iranians have fled their refugee settlements in the area as a result of harassment, threats, looting and evictions. Some refugees had their farmland, produce and livestock confiscated.

Earlier this week, UNHCR visited the refugee settlements of Dujaila, Al Kumiet and Ali Al Gharbi and arranged for the delivery of water, medicine and food to more than 6,000 Iranian Arab refugees and their Iraqi neighbours in an attempt to alleviate local tensions.

Out of the Iranian refugees displaced from their homes in southern Iraq, more than 500 are still encamped at two border crossing points - Bazirghan and Shiramsheh - seeking repatriation to neighbouring Iran. Some have been there for a month. Another 80 sheltering at an abandoned transit centre on the outskirts of Basra also say they want to return to their homeland. UNHCR is negotiating with the Iranian authorities for their speedy return.

Meanwhile in northern Iraq, the refugee agency has re-established services at Makhmour camp, home to some 9,000 Turkish refugees.

UNHCR is also caring for more than 1,200 people stranded in the no man's land between western Iraq and Jordan. Most of them are Iranian Kurdish refugees who left Al Tash camp in early April. Among the stranded are also Arabs, including some 150 Iraqis and Palestinians, all seeking entry to Jordan's Ruwaished camp.