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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

IRAQ: Political differences over repatriation to north fade away

SULAYMANIYAH, 2 December 2004 (IRIN) - The future of a UN-sponsored scheme offering voluntary repatriation to Iraqi Kurdish refugees from Iran is beginning to look brighter as policy differences between Iraq's two main Kurdish parties begin to dissipate.

In June, joint International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convoys began to repatriate some of the estimated 5,000 Iraqi Kurdish families. The programme had foundered briefly in August, pending discussions between aid workers and officials from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The two parties - KDP, based in Arbil, which controls the northern half and PUK, based in Sulaymaniyah, controls the southern half of Iraqi Kurdistan since the outbreak of civil war in 1994 - disagreed on the role they should play in helping returnee families resettle.

From the beginning of the programme, the PUK was the keener of the two to see convoys continue. Alongside the Haj Omran border crossing, in western Iran, set aside for the official registration of returnees, it wanted a second crossing point opened further south, facilitating returns for families from PUK-controlled areas.

Some 1,000 people are making the trek from Iran daily, according to Iraq?s Ministry for Displacement and Migration. From the start, the Ministry of Human Rights in Sulaymaniyah, the centre of PUK power, has been providing beneficiaries of the IRC-UNHCR scheme with plots of land and US $1,000 in cash.

"These people have a right to return to their homeland, and the authorities here have a duty to help them return," Abdullah Dler, PUK commissioner for IDPs, told IRIN, in Sulaymaniyah. "I fail to see why the KDP is not doing as we are."

Such displays of naivety are somewhat disingenuous. Quite apart from worrying that, with no houses to go to, returnees would end up swelling the already considerable ranks of IDPs in the area, the KDP was also looking to its political interests.

Elections slated for 30 January are approaching fast and it knows the majority of Iraqi Kurds in Iran support the PUK.

Above all, KDP officials were holding out in the hope of international support. And they appear to have got it. UNHCR is currently collaborating with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) on a multi-million dollar project to help reintegrate 2,700 internally displaced (IDPs) families, returnees and refugees. Though not specifically aimed at returnees from Iran, some are likely to benefit.

"This and promises of other projects encouraged the KDP to restart convoys," IRC deputy country director John Kilkenny, told IRIN from Arbil.

He added that KDP authorities had now agreed to allocate plots of land to returnees. Even in PUK areas, however, to which a majority of the beneficiaries of the convoys have returned, their reintegration into society has not always been easy.

"They told us life here would be like paradise on earth," complained Ahmed Qidir Pirot, back in Iraq after 16 years spent in a refugee camp near the northwestern Iranian town of Piranshah. "Look around you. Do you still believe that?"

Pirot is one of approximately 300 returnees (45 families) living in tents in Chwarqurna, a township in the remote Raniya district of Sulaymaniyah governorate. He was part of a convoy that returned three months ago. The local authorities had provided his family with a heater, he said, but no kerosene to run it.

"They gave kerosene to people returning in August," he sneered. "What are they going to give us now? Ice?" Though local officials confirmed that most of the 285 families returning to the district had received money and land, Pirot was still waiting for his. Not that he or others in the tent village expected that to solve his problems.

"I've been given this piece of land and the money," said Pirot's tent neighbour Hamid Qadir Ahmed, pointing to a patch of red earth behind the gravel factory on Chwarqurna's outskirts. "But $1,000 is never going to be enough to build a house with."

Admitting that $1,000 was likely to be too little to buy construction materials, IDP department officials in Raniya and Sulaymaniyah pointed out that the money was aimed to tide returnee families over until their situations stabilised.

"Some families can provide building materials by themselves," said Abdullah Dler in Sulaymaniyah. "Others are government employers who can get interest-free loans. Others can rely on help from their extended families," he said.

Others questioned their decision to return home. "That is true of a lot of returnees, but not of me," said Hamid Qadir Ahmed. "I should have stayed in Iran," he added

Themes: (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition, (IRIN) Human Rights, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs



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