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UN Plans to Repatriate Iraqi Refugees - 2003-07-29

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is organizing the first return trip for Iraqi refugees since the fall of Saddam Hussein. As Lisa Schlein reports from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, the agency says more than 240 people are due to leave Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp late Tuesday on their journey to southern Iraq.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said the agency expects more than 3,600 refugees to leave Rafha camp and return to Iraq before the end of the year. He says refugee convoys will depart from Rafha at 10 day intervals.

"These are people who wanted to go back. In fact, were quite anxious to go back to Iraq," stressed Mr. Janowski. "They come from a group of people who have been stuck in the Rafha camp since the first '91 Gulf War. There were originally about 33 thousand of them. Many of them have been resettled in third countries, but 5,200 still remain in that camp. And, these people are now being taken back. But again, this is something that they wanted to do and it is being organized by their request."

Mr. Janowski says the return is being closely coordinated with Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority.

He says the UNHCR is not promoting returns to Iraq because of the serious security problems in the country. However, he says his agency is willing to assist those refugees who are desperate to go back and rejoin their families.

As the situation inside Iraq improves, he says he expects more refugees to ask for repatriation. He says as many as a half-million refugees in neighboring countries and in western Europe could eventually seek help to return to Iraq.