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) IRAQI ASYLUM SEEKERS
UNHCR is asking governments to temporarily halt the forced return of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers for an initial period of three months, given the tense situation and risk of armed conflict in Iraq. During this interim period, we're also advising governments that all Iraqis outside their homeland should be given appropriate complementary forms of protection.
More than 51,000 Iraqis claimed asylum world wide last year, forming by far the largest single group of asylum seekers in industrialised countries; Yugoslavs formed the next largest group, numbering only 33,000. The top five industrialised countries receiving asylum requests from Iraqis during 2002 were the United Kingdom (14,900], Germany (10,400), Sweden (5,400), Austria (4,600) and Greece (2,600). Certainly, Iraqi asylum seekers are not limited to Europe, as thousands approach our offices in countries surrounding Iraq every year seeking UNHCR's protection and assistance.
Until now, UNHCR had recommended a ban on the return of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers to government-controlled areas, unless the return was voluntary.
In all there are some 400,000 recognized Iraqi refugees world wide, with more than half living in Iran. Hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis are believed to be living outside their home country, without claiming asylum.
The spring repatriation season to Afghanistan is getting underway. Today some 1,000 Afghans left the Katcha Garhi refugee camp on the edge of Peshawar, Pakistan. From neighboring Iran, a total of 1,117 refugees returned to Afghanistan over the past two days, signaling an important increase over recent months. The returns on Sunday and Monday included 460 UNHCR/Iranian government-facilitated returns and 657 spontaneous returnees.
Following a month of refresher training of our repatriation staff in Pakistan, we're focusing this year on facilitating the return of Afghans in Pakistan's more than 200 refugee camps as well as urban areas, from where 82 percent returned last year. More than 1.6 million Afghans returned from Pakistan last year under our programme that began last March.
Since we started helping Afghans return from Iran last year, more than 400,879 have repatriated, including 266,946 who went home under an assisted program and 133,933 who returned spontaneously.
UNHCR has added a new test to complement our screening effort in Pakistan - iris recognition scanning. After a successful test last year of iris recognition technology to complement our on-going screening efforts, from now onwards all refugees over the age of 12 will be tested by equipment that detects anyone trying to undergo the test a second time. Three repatriation verification centres are being set up in Pakistan while a fourth will be established at a crossing point just inside Afghanistan.
UNHCR plans to help some 1.2 million refugees to return to Afghanistan this year from Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian states, along with another 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) that will be assisted homewards. Refugees returning under the facilitated return initiative receive a small travel grant of between $3 and $30 depending on the distance to their home communities, along with some food and other assistance provided inside Afghanistan.
Recent rains across Afghanistan have eased the drought in the north and alleviated some water problems in the south and east of the country, encouraging some people to repatriate home. While important job-creating development is underway in Afghanistan, refugees cite concerns about security, shelter and employment.
UNHCR so far has received $47 million out of $195 million needed for the Afghanistan programme and to assist Afghan refugees in surrounding countries.
3) LIBERIA/AID WORKERS
UNHCR has learned with shock and sadness of the killing of the Adventist Relief and Development Agency's (ADRA) Norway director, Kaare Lund, during a rebel attack in the east of Liberia on 28 March. Mr. Lund had been originally reported as missing but last Sunday ADRA learned that he had been killed.
The deaths of his two colleagues Emmanuel Sharpolu, ADRA's country director for Liberia, and chief driver Musa Kita, were already reported a week ago. The three were on their way to visit a Norwegian-funded refugee shelter project in the area of Toe Town when they were killed.
ADRA is an implementing partner of UNHCR responsible for the construction of campsites for the Ivorian refugees. Nearly 40,000 Ivorian refugees have arrived in Liberia, since fighting broke out in western Côte d'Ivoire late last year, together with 45,000 Liberians previously living in Côte d'Ivoire and 13,000 other West African nationals. UNHCR and its NGO partners are assisting them with shelter, domestic items and health care as well as onward transportation home for the Liberians. The 28 February attack has disrupted humanitarian activities in Liberia's eastern border regions.
A joint assessment carried out by the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and UNHCR shows that Kosovo's ethnic minorities continue to face security problems and lack access to basic services. The report says that despite progress in many areas Kosovo's ethnic minorities lack access to education and health services. The study also says ethnic minorities, primarily ethnic Serbs and Roma, find it much harder to find employment. The report says one key concern is the lack of freedom of movement for the minorities which affects their ability to live normal lives.
The assessment says after three internationally supervised polls, in which Kosovo's residents have chosen their own municipal and central leadership, fair and equitable treatment of minorities remains problematic in many areas.
The report - the tenth such assessment in four years - said the improvement in the overall situation of Kosovo's minority communities has not been "fundamental enough" to allow a large-scale return to the province of minority Serbs and Roma.
An estimated 200,000 people fled Kosovo in mid 1999, as Serbian forces withdrew from the province. Only a small number have since trickled back to Kosovo where ethnic Albanians represent an overwhelming majority.