Awaiting fresh contributions, UNHCR resumes helping Iraqi returnees
BASRA, Iraq, May 7 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency this week resumed its convoys for Iraqi refugees insisting on returning home, with the repatriation of 114 refugees from two camps in western Iran. The convoys had been halted a month ago due to fighting and security concerns in Iraq.
Three buses and nine trucks made up UNHCR's convoy on Wednesday that carried 26 families back to Basra. This was the agency's first convoy since the voluntary repatriation movements were halted on April 7 when fighting surged in various Iraqi cities and many non-governmental agencies were forced to temporarily withdraw their staff.
The 114 refugees who opted to go back this week included 59 children, all Iraqi Arabs who had been forced to flee the country as long as 20 years ago when the Baghdad government clamped down on Shiite communities in southern Iraq.
The Iraqis refugees left from Mottahari and Ansar refugee camps, located in Iran's Khuzestan province. Prior to leaving Iran, they underwent mine awareness training at the Shalamcheh border. After crossing, they were met by Coalition Provisional Authority personnel and escorted into Basra, where they received relief items, including blankets, plastic tarpaulins, lanterns, household supplies, hygiene items and, if necessary, tents, from local UNHCR and partner agency staff.
More than 6,000 Iraqis have returned from Iran with assistance from the UN refugee agency since convoys started last November. Another 4,800 have repatriated from Saudi Arabia with UN convoys. Tens of thousands of other refugees have gone back to Iraq spontaneously since late last year, although these movements from Iran reportedly also subsided when fighting erupted last month around Najaf and other cities.
Next week, UNHCR and Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs (BAFIA) plan to open Voluntary Repatriation Centres in Ahwaz and Kermanshah provinces, where Iraqis seeking to go home despite the unstable security situation can register for transport.
Because of the recent tension throughout Iraq, UNHCR is only assisting Iraqi refugees who insist on going back and who originate from Basra, Dhiqar or Muthana governorates in the south of the country.
UNHCR continues to help refugee communities and recent returnees throughout Iraq with the support of various national and international relief agencies, but said that donor countries have so far not provided any contributions despite the pressing humanitarian situation in the country.
The refugee agency needs $74 million this year for its activities in Iraq and assistance to exiles in neighbouring countries.
The relief initiatives UNHCR is undertaking in Iraq include the distribution of various household items for some 30,000 extremely vulnerable people in Basra and Thi Qar governorates. Water distribution systems in Basra, Khumesh, Umm al Shuweitch and Sehan are also being upgraded to help 69,000 people. In Thi Qar governorate's marshlands, the agency is financing the reinforcement of aging dikes that threaten to submerge communities housing some 41,000 people.
At Al Tash refugee camp, 120 km west of Baghdad, UNHCR is rehabilitating the water system and ensuring that school teachers, medical staff and local security personnel keep facilities open for the some 5,200 Iranian ethnic Kurdish refugees living there. More than 1,700 Iranian refugees who fled Al Tash camp a year ago for northern Iraq's Sulaymaniyah governorate are receiving rental support. The agency also plans community development and income generating projects for these displaced refugees.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, UNHCR is ensuring that the 9,300 Turkish refugees in Makhmour camp continue to receive various services including health care, schooling, shelter, water and sanitation. In Dohuk governorate, the refugee agency and its partners are rehabilitating schools and water sources in 18 villages, school rehabilitation is ongoing in eight villages while various community development activities are underway in a further 26 villages to benefit recent returnees.