Afghanistan + 7 more

UNHCR Briefing Notes: Islamic Rep. Iran/Afghan refugees, Sudan/Eritrea-Ethiopia, Timor, Kosovo

This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below left

Kris Janowski

1. Islamic Republic of Iran

UNHCR and the Iranian government have agreed on ways of repatriating an estimated 1.4 million Afghan refugees remaining in Iran, in a move designed to better organize the return process and to put an end to forcible deportations of those who would be in jeopardy if sent back to Afghanistan. An estimated 90,000 people have gone back since Iran abandoned its open-door policy toward Afghans in late 1998, citing public pressure and a worsening economic situation. Fifteen thousand people have returned voluntarily under a UNHCR programme but most have been sent back.

The current agreement, which comes into force in April, gives Afghan refugees without proper documents six months to come forward and either apply for return or make a case for remaining in Iran. Under the agreement, signed in Teheran last week by the UNHCR representative and the head of Iran's Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs, UNHCR will be given a say in determining whether those coming forward will return or will be allowed to remain. UNHCR will also help to establish transit camps in several provinces to register the refugees and to handle their cases. Those returning will receive food and cash grants.

2. Sudan

UNHCR is gearing up for a repatriation of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees from Sudan later this year. During three days of talks with top Sudanese officials in Khartoum this week, Assistant High Commissioner Soren Jessen-Petersen was assured of Sudan's full co-operation on the return of some 12,000 Ethiopians and an estimated 150,000 Eritreans, many of whom have lived in refugee camps in Sudan for 30 years.

Last month, Jessen-Petersen enlisted the support for the repatriation of the Eritrean and Ethiopian authorities during visits to Asmara and Addis Ababa. The Eritreans also agreed to UNHCR staff being deployed in Eritrea for the first time in almost three years. Two UNHCR officials are already in Asmara, drawing up a return plan. During a recent census, 90 percent of Eritrean refugees in Sudan have expressed willingness to go back. Their return would put an end to one of Africa's longest refugee crises.

3. Timor

Militiamen stoned a UNHCR-IOM team in West Timor's border town of Atambua today, damaging an IOM vehicle and disrupting a move to repatriate more than 1,000 East Timorese refugees. No one was injured, but only 179 of the refugees managed to repatriate from Atambua.

We raised this incident with Indonesian authorities who promised to tighten security. We are concerned at the continuing harassment by militiamen of aid workers and refugees in West Timor. There has been a spate of at least five security incidents along the border over the past three weeks. Unless militia activity is stopped and anti-repatriation elements are removed from the camps, we may have to reconsider our assistance programs in West Timor.

The Center for Disease Control expert in Kupang says she has been unable to confirm the Antara news agency report on Friday that 700 mostly children and pregnant mothers had died of diseases in the camps since September. She said the mortality rate in the camps is about the same as in other parts of Indonesia. However, she said a "surveillance" program has been put in place in the camps.

4. Kosovo

UNHCR staff in Mitrovica report that the northern Kosovo city is calm, and was also calm overnight following the demonstrations Monday. The demonstrators left the city streets at about 7.30 pm.

Much of Monday's demonstration took place in a peaceful manner, though tear-gas was used to keep demonstrators from crossing the bridges in the divided city. KFOR reports that house-searches that began on Sunday are continuing today.

On an emergency basis, KFOR is doing food distribution in the north in some areas to families who report that they don't feel safe to leave their apartments to reach central distribution points. Some minority residents in the north report that in addition to a lack of freedom of movement even to go out and buy bread they haven't had electricity, which seems to have been purposefully shut-off in some areas. UNHCR is looking into these reports and working to ensure that minority residents in the community are not being targeted by electricity cuts.

Some 1,600 arrivals from north Mitrovica have been registered to date. The actual number of arrivals from the north side of the Ibar river could be as high as 2,000 persons, mostly Kosovo Albanians. Most of these arrivals from the north are being accommodated by relatives and friends in the south. Before the violence erupted on 3 February, the entire Kosovo Albanian population of northern Mitrovica and the surrounding area was estimated at around 4,500. 2,500 Kosovo Albanians were believed to live in city limits of the north side of Mitrovica. Today, the number of Kosovo Albanians remaining on the north side of Mitrovica could thus be well under 1,000 persons, perhaps as low as 500.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.