This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's Palais des Nations press briefing in Geneva. Further information can be found on the UNHCR website, www.unhcr.ch which should also be checked for regular media updates on non-briefing days.
1) HIGH COMMISSIONER TO AFGHANISTAN, PAKISTAN, IRAN
High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers left this morning on a 10-day mission to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Arriving in Kabul on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Lubbers plans to meet with various UN and Afghan government officials, diplomats and recent returnees. It will be his fourth visit to Afghanistan since taking office in early 2001.
Mr. Lubbers said today that the international community should not forget the continuing, enormous needs in Afghanistan - - particularly with the increasing focus on Iraq. He said Afghanistan must remain a priority and that ensuring sustainable returns of refugees and the displaced would contribute to long-term stability in the region and the world.
On Thursday, he will travel north to Mazar-i-Sharif, where he plans to attend a meeting of the region's Return Commission, which is looking at ways to help displaced Afghans return to the area. There are more than 720,000 displaced Afghans in the country, both individuals who left their communities due to the long drought - - which finally appears to be easing in northern regions -- as well as due to security incidents in some areas.
Friday, Mr. Lubbers plans to visit Nahrin district in Balkh Province, to see the conditions of returnees and to review shelter projects. Nahrin was hit by successive earthquakes in late 2001 and March 2002 that leveled many houses and collapsed irrigation systems. More than 5,000 houses were rebuilt last year in the area by UNHCR, USAID and ECHO. Balkh Province received the second largest number of returning refugees last year, more than 117,000 people, second only to Kabul Province, which saw the return of 650,000.
Mr. Lubbers lands in Islamabad on Sunday. With winter coming to an end, the 2003 repatriation season will be getting underway in earnest. So far this year, more than 2,700 refugees have returned from Pakistan, while more than 4,400 have returned from Iran. Overall, this year, we plan to facilitate the return of 1.2 million refugees and 300,000 displaced Afghans to their home areas.
While in Pakistan, Mr. Lubbers will visit Khot Chandna settlement for Afghan refugees in Punjab Province. He also plans to meet the President Musharraf, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, and senior members of the Cabinet as well as members of the diplomatic corps before flying to Tehran on 5 March.
During his two-day visit in Tehran, Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to meet President Khatami and several senior ministers. On Thursday, 6 March, the last full day of his mission, he plans to visit Ahwaz in southwestern Iran. There he will meet provincial authorities and officials from the Iranian Red Crescent Society who are involved in assisting Iraqi refugees in Iran. Iran shelters 202,000 Iraqi refugees -- more than half the total number of recognized Iraqi refugees in the world. Most of them live among the local community, but some 45,000 Iraqis reside in 22 camps spread throughout the west of the country. Last year 1,100 Iraqi refugees opted to return home from Iran.
2) WEST AFRICA
In Cote d'Ivoire's main city, Abidjan, Liberian refugees continue to demonstrate in front of the UNHCR office asking to be evacuated out of the country or moved to a safer location in Cote d'Ivoire. Many of them have been living in dire conditions in makeshift transit sites in Abidjan since the conflict erupted last September. They have faced harassment by the local population, who accuse them of siding with the rebels. To date, UNHCR efforts to get the government to identify a safer location for the Liberians have produced no results. We have also been unsuccessful in trying to persuade neighbouring countries to provide refuge.
While we have been unable to resolve the problem of Liberians who cannot go back to their country, we continue to repatriate those willing to return. In the southwest of the country, more refugees have recently come forward asking for repatriation to Liberia. Several of them said they were chased away from the plantations where they had been employed. Some alleged they were beaten and driven away by their Ivorian neighbours. Since February 17, UNHCR has repatriated more than 2,250 refugees from the Tabou area back to Liberia. During the same period, over 43,000 refugees have gone back on their own, despite continued instability in Liberia itself.
Some 36,000 Ivorian refugees have also fled to Liberia. While returning Liberians head to their hometowns and villages deeper inside Liberia, Ivorians tend to stay in border areas, hoping to go back home as soon as the fighting subsides. As a result, many Ivorians are now living in villages among the Liberian population close to the border, lacking adequate food and medical care. Many refugees are malnourished, making them more susceptible to malaria, meningitis and yellow fever.
Continued fighting in the Central African Republic has pushed another 15,000 Central Africans and Chadian immigrants to neighbouring Chad over a four-day period. Between 19-22 February, the number of people crossing Chad's south-western border doubled to an average 1,000 people a day - up from 500 a day one week ago. There are now an estimated 21,000 Central African refugees and Chadians in several villages along Chad's south-western border.
Some of those arriving in Chad over the last few days have bullet wounds. The medical NGO, MSF-Belgium, is providing emergency assistance to the sick and wounded at a transit centre in the south-western border town of Gore.
Those coming across are mainly Chadian immigrants who have lived in CAR for decades. There are also relatively smaller numbers of Central Africans among those escaping the intensifying conflict between the government and rebel forces in towns in western CAR. People are flooding through the border on foot. Some have walked from towns such as Bozoum, in western CAR, some 200 kms away. They are using two main entry points: Kaba Roangar, south of Gore, and Sido, south of the town of Sarh.
UNHCR has no permanent office, vehicles or communication facilities in Chad, so staff from our office in Bangui, CAR - which covers Chad -- are temporarily in the capital, Ndjamena. We are making arrangements to re-open an office in Ndjamena and in field locations in southern Chad. UNHCR closed its offices in Chad, as well as in nine other countries in Africa, more than a year ago due to funding shortages.
Yesterday, a UNHCR staff member attached to the Chadian government's National Refugee Committee (NRC) was sent from Ndjamena to the south-western border areas to continue monitoring the situation and to help with preparations being made to transport returning Chadian immigrants to their areas of origin. Most are from Salamat prefecture, south-eastern Chad. We are also preparing the deployment of an emergency team consisting of a site planner, legal and field staff. They are expected to set up a new camp just north of Gore.