Afghanistan + 3 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Iraq region, Afghanistan, Liberia

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News and Press Release
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Originally published
Ron Redmond - Media Relations
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) IRAQ REGION

We're getting many calls about the Iraq situation so here's some updated information on our continuing humanitarian preparations.

UNHCR's contingency planning is based on an initial preparedness figure for 600,000 refugees should there be conflict in Iraq. This is not a "prediction," but a working figure based on one of many possible scenarios. It allows us to plan our budgets, logistical requirements and staffing needs. The working figure is not set in stone and can be adjusted as events dictate. And we know all too well from past experience that these working figures can be substantially different than the eventual reality.

The initial contingency preparations by UNHCR for 600,000 people require $60 million. This is part of the $123 million in requirements already announced by the United Nations in New York on Feb. 13 to cover the initial joint preparedness efforts of nine U.N. humanitarian agencies and IOM.

Of the $60 million sought by UNHCR, we have received nearly $19.5 million, including $2.77 million yesterday from the United Kingdom. At the same time, Australia and Norway said they would re-pay $1.8 million out of a $6 million loan UNHCR took from the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund.

Drawing on contributions to date and our limited existing reserves, UNHCR has spent $25.8 million on procurement, transportation and storage of non-food relief items, and on other preparedness measures in the region. As of yesterday, we had pre-positioned emergency stocks for nearly 300,000 people in the region and we should have enough in place for 350,000 in the next fortnight. Supplies continue to arrive and are being pre-positioned around the region, including Iskenderun, Turkey, Kermanshah, Iran, and Aqaba, Jordan. We are also assembling information from a wide range of other partners in the region who have their own emergency stocks in place.

In recent weeks, we have deployed about 30 additional international staff to countries surrounding Iraq. They join the 185 national and international staff already working in our 15 offices across the region. We also have on standby seven emergency response teams - - each with about 15 or 20 members - who can be deployed within 72 hours. These teams are composed of specialists in emergency work and cover a range of protection, assistance and technical needs.

So we are doing our best with the limited resources available. The High Commissioner has asked officials in each of Iraq's neighboring states to keep their borders open in the event of conflict. We rely on this so that refugees can seek temporary protection and assistance. Iraq's neighbors would have primary responsibility for providing refugees with temporary protection and material assistance to lessen the effects of human suffering, and for security, including maintaining the civilian and humanitarian character of any refugee-hosting areas.

In the event of military intervention in Iraq, UNHCR would work in close partnership with the neighboring states to protect and assist refugees, including through their national Red Crescent Societies in conjunction with the IFRC and ICRC. The region's Red Crescent societies have good domestic networks and operational capacity, which make them a good fit with UNHCR's international protection and advocacy responsibilities. This is why UNHCR is now working with them and other partners to assemble information on our combined emergency stocks in the region.

In the event of refugee flows, UNHCR would focus primarily on its mandated international protection and advocacy role, including monitoring in support of keeping borders open and ensuring that the rights of refugees are respected. This would entail UNHCR access to all refugee populations. UNHCR would deploy its own specialist staff to provide proper technical expertise and support for national efforts to protect and assist refugees within and along their borders. This could include any asylum seekers caught along Iraq's borders with neighboring states.

UNHCR's work would focus on upholding basic refugee protection principles, particularly the principle of non-refoulement and access to asylum. Together with the host governments, UNHCR staff would conduct registration of refugees. UNHCR would also seek the continued protection of some 100,000 refugees already living in Iraq.

Materially -- and depending on available resources -- UNHCR would support governments in providing essential services, including food, basic shelter, water, sanitation facilities, health care and clothing. To the extent possible, UNHCR would supplement the material aid provided by the host governments, their national Red Crescent societies, NGOs and other humanitarian organizations.

In Jordan, UNHCR and the Hashimite Charitable Society are preparing one camp site at Ruwaished, about 60 kilometers from the Iraqi border, just east of Ruwaished town. We're signing an agreement today to provide $1 million for additional work on the site, where preparations are ongoing for up to 10,000 people. The site could hold up to 20,000. Water is available, and a desalinisation plant to enhance the water quality has been installed by the government.

At the Al Karama border crossing point, east of Ruwaished, the Jordanian government is grading a site for possible use as a transit area for refugee arrivals, and installing toilets. We have sent supplies of tents, blankets, plastic tarpaulins, kitchen sets, mattresses, stoves, lanterns, and hygienic supplies for 10,000 people to a Hashimite Charitable Society-managed warehouse in Ruwaished. UNHCR has secured a satellite office at Ruwaished town. From Tuesday (today), UNHCR staff will be operating at our new satellite office in Ruwaished, where we are establishing a full-time presence with two expatriates plus two national staff. Also at Ruwaished, the government of Jordan and the Jordanian Red Crescent are preparing a second site for possible third country nationals, should any foreign workers leave Jordan.

In Syria, El Hol camp, about 100 kms from the Iraqi border, has an initial capacity for 4,000 to 5,000 people. The site will soon be ready to shelter up to 10,000 once some on-going sanitation works are completed. It could be ready to shelter up to 20,000 people in a matter of weeks.

In Iran, site preparation is on going at three sites near Ahwaz, Khuzistan Province, in the southwest of the country. You may recall that the High Commissioner visited this region a few weeks ago.

2) AFGHANISTAN TRIPARTITE AGREEMENT

Yesterday in Brussels, UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan signed a tripartite agreement that for the first time establishes a formal process for resolving the 23-year-old Afghan refugee problem in Pakistan. Under the agreement, UNHCR will continue to assist the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan for three more years. The agreement is designed to support a gradual organized return that is sustainable. At the end of this process, a screening will take place to determine who among the remaining Afghan population is still in need of protection and continued refugee status. The agreement with Pakistan is the fourth in a series of such agreements. The first three were signed by the government of Afghanistan, UNHCR and the governments of Iran, France and the United Kingdom. A fifth tripartite agreement is due to be signed later today between the government of Afghanistan, UNHCR and the government of the Netherlands.

3) LIBERIA

The highly volatile situation in Liberia has forced UNHCR to reduce staff in several key refugee-hosting areas, hampering our ability to help thousands of people who have fled the conflict in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.

UNHCR has only a few local staff in Zwedru, which hosts a transit centre for 8,000 Ivorians and other West Africans who fled western Côte d'Ivoire. We have pulled all our staff out of Toe Town, 80 kilometres to the north, after a February 28 attack in the area left three aid workers dead and dispersed 2,500 people hosted in our transit centre. Some 740 of these people have now reported in Zwedru but we are still concerned about the whereabouts of the others. Some might have fled towards the Ivorian border.

For security reasons we have also reduced our staff in Harper, in Mariland district on the Atlantic coast. There are reports that some Liberians who had recently repatriated with UNHCR have now gone back to Côte d'Ivoire, finding conditions in Liberia too harsh to endure. UNHCR has also reduced its staff in Saclepea, in Nimba County (near the border with Guinea) because of the reported escalation of fighting in Liberia's central region, leaving only local staff there.

Meanwhile, LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) rebels have reportedly advanced eastwards towards the town of Gbarnga, in Bong County. The town of Gbarnga is reported to be deserted except for fighters. This could cut off access from Saclepea to the main road leading to Monrovia.

Since November, UNHCR has been assisting close to 95,000 people in five transit centres in Liberia's eastern border areas. They include nearly 45,000 Liberians returning home from Côte d'Ivoire, close to 40,000 Ivorian refugees and 13,000 other West African nationals attempting to return to their countries. UNHCR has been assisting West African migrant workers (Burkinabè, Malians and others) since the International Organisation for Migration, which normally handles such cases, has no operational presence in the area.