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First Iraqi refugees arrive back in southern Iraq

First Iraqi refugees arrive back in southern Iraq

The first return convoy organised by the UN refugee agency since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime has reached Basra after travelling overnight from Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp. The 244 returnees ended their 12 years in exile with jubilant songs by welcoming relatives.
30 July 2003
Overjoyed Iraqi returnees dancing with their families in Um Qasr, southern Iraq.

BASRA, Iraq, July 30 (UNHCR) - More than 240 Iraqi refugees returned home today to scenes of great jubilation after a historic journey marking the start of voluntary returns to Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi returnees arrived back in southern Iraq after 12 years of exile in Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp. They were greeted by overjoyed relatives who sang songs of welcome.

"It was quite moving," said Mohammed Adar, UNHCR's emergency team leader, upon arriving in Basra. "I had misgivings in the beginning about this return, but when I saw the mothers greeting their sons, the scenes of joy, it was very emotional and very moving."

The return convoy, the first since the fall of Saddam, left Rafha camp on Tuesday evening with five buses carrying the 244 refugees and their belongings. They travelled through Kuwait before arriving in southern Iraq on Wednesday morning. Sixteen refugees were dropped off in their hometown of Um Qasr, 27 went to Medina, while the remaining 201 proceeded on to Basra.

Hailing the significance of the inaugural return operation, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, said, "Today's convoy marks the beginning of the end for Rafha refugee camp, a chance for long-time refugees to finally return to their homeland."

The convoy was organised by the UN refugee agency in close co-operation with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority.

"We're very grateful for the unprecedented support Saudi Arabia has granted Iraqi refugees over the years and the recent contribution by Kuwait for our relief activities already underway in Iraq," said Morjane, referring to Kuwait's donation of $2 million. "Their help is indispensable in finding solutions for these refugees."

There are now 5,200 Iraqi refugees at Rafha camp. This number is down from over 33,000 who had fled their country at the end of the 1991 Gulf War and following the collapse of a Shiite-led uprising in the south that was brutally put down by Saddam's forces. When the regime fell in April this year, these refugees began pressing to return home, with some staging sit-ins to pressure relief officials to organise their repatriation as soon as possible.

"UNHCR is glad to see the first group of Iraqi refugees going home, but returns must be kept small and manageable for some time to come," cautioned Morjane. "Due to security problems and the still fragile humanitarian and economic situation inside Iraq, we're only aiding those refugees who want to go back."

More than 3,600 Iraqis at Rafha camp have registered for repatriation. They will be transported home in convoys leaving every 10 days, with future movements planned for Al Muthana, Dhi Qar Najaf and Nasiriya.

The UN refugee agency also plans to start small return convoys from Iran's Ashrafi camp in early August. More than 200 refugees have already signed up for repatriation to Basra and other southern areas.

Since the end of the war, UNHCR has been expanding its presence in Iraq to deal with the anticipated return of more than 500,000 refugees and displaced Iraqis. The number includes more than 204,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran.

With the regime change, the agency can now accompany returnees back to their homes and provide information to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still waiting in countries throughout the region.

UNHCR staff talking with returning refugees in the immigration hall at Um Qasr.

UNHCR is also helping internally displaced people within Iraq itself. In the Dohuk area of northern Iraq, it is mobilising assistance for internally displaced Iraqi Kurds who have gone back spontaneously to their original villages, under a multi-agency programme to stabilise returnee communities. UNHCR has dispatched tents, blankets, kitchen sets, stoves and lanterns to 230 people in 32 families at Galikhodeda village, and similar relief aid packages are being arranged for 200 returnees in 28 families at Hinjirok village. Shelter materials will soon be distributed in the two villages, and other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations are clearing landmines in peripheral areas and laying out plans to dig wells and bring in electricity.

Last month, UNHCR began the programme to rehabilitate villages in Makhmour district in the Erbil governorate, where spontaneous returns have taken place. After handing out tents and emergency relief to three villages in Makhmour, the agency is now providing shelter materials - cement, window and door frames - to these villages so the returnees can build houses.

"We are concentrating our assistance efforts in areas where there are no major problems," said Pierre François Pirlot, UNHCR's co-ordinator for northern Iraq. "There are areas where returns could provoke tensions, such as the Kirkuk region. There, we are urging displaced people who are from that area to remain where they are, as outstanding property disputes have not been resolved."