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More Refugees to Return to Iraq - 2003-08-10

The United Nations Refugee agency, UNHCR, is repatriating nearly 250 Iraqi refugees from Rafha camp in northern Saudi Arabia. This is the second group of refugees to go home since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The U.N. refugee agency said the Iraqi refugees were to leave their remote Saudi Arabian camp Sunday night to avoid the sizzling desert heat.

It said they are expected to cross the border into Kuwait early Monday morning and go on to Basra, in southern Iraq. From there, it said, they will rejoin the families and friends they have not seen for more than 12 years.

UNHCR Spokesman Peter Kessler said these refugees have been clamoring to go back since April, even though the situation in Iraq remains unstable.

"They want to go back and see their families and see how Iraq has changed. We are not recommending that people return to Iraq at this time. But these refugees have been so anxious to go back, some of them have even been going on short hunger strikes to call for the start of the convoys, which is why we opted to organize these small convoys during the coming months," Mr. Kessler said.

More than 5,000 Iraqis have been living in the Rafha camp since the 1991 Gulf War. The U.N. agency said it expects to repatriate more than 3,600 of them this year.

Later this month, Mr. Kessler said, the UNHCR will carry out another small-scale repatriation, this time from Iran. He said it will help some 100 Iraqi refugees desperate to return home after years of exile. Those refugees will be returning from Ashrafi camp, which holds more than 11,000 Iraqis.

Iran currently is hosting an estimated 200,000 Iraqi refugees.

Mr. Kessler said the United Nations will not begin large-scale repatriations until next year, when it is hoped that security in Iraq will have improved. "We do not have a crystal ball. We do not know what the situation will look like down the road. But we do hope that by 2004, that the coalition will have a better control of the security situation, that an administration and property adjudication structure will be in place in Iraq. And that, of course, these problems with electricity, medical care, water will have been alleviated so that people have access to these very vital, basic services," he said.

The UNHCR estimates there are around three million Iraqi exiles around the world. It says it believes more than 500,000 of them will ask the United Nations to help them go home.