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Iraq: Returns from Rafha set to increase; Palestinians registered

Briefing notes

Iraq: Returns from Rafha set to increase; Palestinians registered

19 August 2003

Our third repatriation convoy leaves Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp tonight and should enter Iraq on Wednesday morning. Tonight's convoy will be carrying some 300 returning refugees bound for Najaf, Karbala Qadisiyah, and Babil. This convoy follows the return of some 250 refugees on Saturday morning aboard the second repatriation convoy, which was initially delayed by insecurity in Basra

Saturday's convoy of five buses and trucks went ahead largely without incidents - considering conditions on the ground - aside from being pelted with rocks by children as it drove on Basra's ring road. The kids broke into one truck carrying the refugees' personal effects, and into a UNHCR 4x4, stealing water, a bicycle, and other items.

Due to the high interest among refugees in Rafha camp to go back, we will be increasing the pace and size of convoys over the coming weeks, with future convoys carrying more than 350 refugees each. There are still more than 4,000 Iraqi refugees in Rafha camp, all people who fled Iraq 12 years ago when more than 33,000 arrived in Saudi Arabia. Most have since been resettled to third countries, while some 4,000 have returned home.

Meanwhile in Baghdad we have registered more than 8,200 Palestinian refugees so far. The Palestinians were formerly assisted by the Saddam Hussein government, but they no longer receive support from the authorities.

At the end of the recent war, more than 1,000 Palestinian families were evicted by landlords who wanted to return to their properties, or get higher rents. Some families were given a few days to vacate their homes, while others were kicked out at gunpoint. Most of these people moved in with relatives, but about a third had nowhere to go and are currently accommodated at a makeshift camp we have established at the Haifa Sports Centre. Some 1,500 Palestinians are living in tents at Haifa, where we have provided sanitary facilities and cooking equipment, but this solution can only be temporary. Temperatures often exceed 50 degrees Celsius, and fans provide little relief. In cooperation with the Coalition Provisional Authority, we are trying to find new buildings where these Palestinians can be sheltered.

By registering the Palestinian refugees we are able to identify persons in need of special care, and ensure that they get the proper assistance in the absence of governmental support structures. Eventually, we will provide them with documentation showing that they are under UNHCR's protection.

We are rapidly running out of funds for our operations in Iraq: we only have $1.4 million on hand, after spending or obligating most of the $59 million that we have so far received, mainly on preparations early this year for a possible refugee outflow and on establishing nine offices in Iraq, where we currently have 105 staff. Our top government donors have been USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, United Kingdom, Kuwait, Netherlands, Switzerland, France and Spain. We recently appealed for $90 million to fund our operations in Iraq and make preparations for the repatriation of larger numbers of refugees beginning in 2004.