UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAN-IRAN: Return programme for Iraqi refugees to take time
ANKARA, 5 June 2003 (IRIN) - The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) remains cautious over repatriating Iraqi refugees from neighbouring Iran following an Iranian government announcement last week on the start of a voluntary repatriation effort.
"At the moment, the reality in Iraq does not allow us to guarantee in any way the safety of people returning," Marie-Helene Verney, a UNHCR spokeswoman in the capital, Tehran, told IRIN. "From our point of view, it is way too early for any large-scale return," she said, referring to a variety of difficulties facing such an operation.
Her comments follow a report by the Iranian news agency IRNA on 27 May, saying efforts were now under way to repatriate some 200,000 Iraqis living in Iran.
According to the report, the head of the Bureau for Aliens' and Foreign Immigrants' Affairs (BAFIA), Ahmad Hoseyni, stressed that the repatriation would be voluntary, noting that Iraqi refugees could lodge their cases at centres now being used by returning Afghan refugees, or at BAFIA offices throughout Iran.
As part of the operation, returning refugees would be transferred by buses or other vehicles provided by the United Nations to the southern Iraqi city of Basra via the Shalamcheh border-crossing on the 1,458-km bilateral frontier.
"According to negotiations held through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees with the British government, guarantees have been made so that the Geneva Convention's requirements to safeguard the security of refugees and their access to basic needs are respected," Hoseyni was quoted as saying.
Verney said such statements were premature, observing, however, that the main obstacles were conditions obtaining in Iraq as opposed to those in Iran. "Basically, the coalition forces [in Iraq] are saying it is way too early to think of any kind of significant return of Iraqi refugees from anywhere," she said.
Of additional concern, moreover, were the expectations of Iraqis living in the country. During a visit to the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Iran, close to the border, Verney had learned that while it was clear that many Iraqis wanted to go home, it was equally clear that they were not prepared to return without some formal assistance package, which, she said, could not be supplied at present.
According to UNHCR, its office in Tehran was receiving many phone-calls from Iraqi nationals inquiring as to when they would be able to go back, and what assistance they could expect in this respect - queries which were not easy to answer. UNHCR was, however, working with BAFIA to set up procedures to help in the process of voluntary repatriation, with preparations now under way to organise repatriation centres and adequate facilities at border-crossing points to ensure that the returns were effected under conditions of safety and dignity.
Meanwhile, despite the difficulties referred to, it was quite likely that the first group of Iraqi refugees would leave for Basra quite soon. While no date has been announced, the repatriation was expected to begin soon, but remain limited in scope, UNHCR said.
"As part of a preliminary plan, we foresee a convoy of about 100 people as part of an initial phase of 5,000," Verney said, noting that such returnees would be those prepared to go home with or without any kind of repatriation package - most likely from the refugee camps near Ahvaz. "This location has by far the largest number of Iraqi refugees given its geographical proximity to the border," she added.
Iran hosts more than half of all registered Iraqi refugees in the world. Most are Shiites, who fled Iraq to escape Saddam Hussain's crackdown on southern Iraq's rebellions in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War. Of the 200,000 living in Iran, 48,000 live in refugee camps, while the majority reside in large urban centres, generally in the west of the country. Tehran, with its higher standards of living and greater job opportunities, had attracted the largest number Iraqis, UNHCR said.
Theme(s): (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs
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