Tuesday, August 17, 2004

UN refugee agency halts convoys of Iraqi refugees from Iran

UN refugee agency halts convoys of Iraqi refugees from Iran
Agence France-Presse
Geneva, August 17

"Violence in southern Iraq and a shortage of housing in the north have forced the United Nations' refugee agency to halt convoys of Iraqi refugees from neighbouring Iran, said UN.
"Crossings into both the south and the north of the country have been suspended," the UNHCR said in a statement.

Fierce fighting in the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres south of Baghdad, and a lack of security in the region prompted the temporary suspension in the south.

The repatriation programme has been interrupted several times for similar reasons since it started in November last year, the agency said

"Security is a major concern," UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva, Jennifer Pagonis, told a news conference.

"In the south it is a situation of trying to make sure the security situation can be met so you can get these people back to their country safetly," she said.

In contrast, some Iraqi Kurdish refugees wanting to return to northern Iraq do not appear to have homes to go to, raising concerns among the local authorities in the cities of Sulaymaniah, Erbil, Dohuk and Rania, UNHCR said.

"A shortage of housing is a crucial issue in northern Iraq, where UNHCR has been working with its partners to help build houses, provide local people with building materials and help the rehabilitation of public buildings," it said.

The UN agency said it would hold a meeting with the local authorities to try to solve the housing problem and restart the convoys in early September.

Since UNHCR started helping refugees return to the largely Kurdish north in June, it has made five convoys carrying 543 people who had been living in refugee camps in Iran.

The organisation does not encourage Iraqi refugees to return home for the time being, but it is helping those who insist of going back to their violence-ridden country.

As a result, some 13,000 people have returned to Iraq from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon in recent months. More than half of this number came from Iran which holds the largest Iraqi refugee population in the world."

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