Angola + 4 more

UNHCR briefing notes: High Commissioner in Iraq region, returns to Angola, Liberia

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Rupert Colville - 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.

HIGH COMMISSIONER IN IRAQ REGION

Today, the High Commissioner is spending his second day in northern Iraq. This morning he had a meeting in the city of Sulaymaniyah with senior officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- one of the two main Kurdish political parties -- including the "prime minister" of the local government of Suliymaniyah, Barham Salih.

One of the main issues discussed was possible solutions for the hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Kurds, who were forcibly displaced under Saddam Hussein's devastating "Arabisation" policy.

When he came out of the meeting, a short while ago, the High Commissioner said a major challenge now is to reverse this, so that the Kurds who were expelled can return to their homes. He sees this as a priority. Of course, fair solutions are also needed for the Arab families who were resettled by Saddam Hussein in the Kirkuk area, he said.

He said that UNHCR is ready to work on this issue but responsibility for this lies primarily with the new authorities in Iraq, and particularly the Provisional Authority. While the liberation of Kirkuk was done in an exemplary way, we now need to follow up on this, and to follow up quickly, to prevent disillusionment and renewed conflict, Mr. Lubbers said.

This afternoon, the High Commissioner will visit an IDP site in a suburb of Sulaymaniyah, in order to get first-hand experience of the problems they face.

Yesterday afternoon, in the city of Erbil, the High Commissioner held similar discussions with leading officials of the other main Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), including the "deputy prime minister" of the local government, Sami Abdul Rahman.

Earlier yesterday, he had flown in from Jordan where he began his eight-day, four-nation tour. After a series of meetings with King Abdullah II, Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher and other senior officials, the High Commissioner welcomed the Jordanian government's decision to allow Iraqis to remain in Jordan while conditions remain unsettled inside Iraq. There are believed to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Iraqis living in a refugee-like situation in Jordan, although the number formally recognized as refugees is much lower.

Mr. Lubbers also urged the Jordanian government to allow vulnerable refugees stuck at the border to enter the country on humanitarian grounds. Government officials told him they would look into special cases among the 1,200 people currently living in no-man's land on the Jordan-Iraq border.

RETURNS TO ANGOLA

More than 5,300 Angolan refugees have gone home from neighbouring countries since the organised movement began on June 20. Yesterday (Thursday), 509 refugees boarded the latest repatriation convoy that will take them from Meheba refugee camp in Zambia to Cazombo in Angola. The refugees were scheduled to spend their last night on Zambian soil at Kamapanda, before crossing over into Angola early today (Friday). All the returnees are going back to Cazombo in Moxico province, eastern Angola.

Yesterday's movement, organised jointly by Zambian authorities, the International Organisation for Migration and UNHCR, comes close on the heels of two other convoys which took home Angolan refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo on Wednesday.

Returnees spend the first few days back in Angola in reception centres, where they receive mine awareness training and information on HIV/AIDS. Before leaving the centre, they receive some food, a construction kit to help them set up their homes and basic domestic supplies. Later in the year, they will also receive seeds and farming tools in their home communities.

More than 30,000 refugees in Meheba have registered to return home in convoys that should transport up to 1,000 returnees each week. More refugees at the camp of 45,000 are queuing up to sign up for repatriation to Angola.

Next week, officials of the Zambian government and UNHCR will meet to plan a return programme for refugees living in three other refugee camps in western Zambia. The country is home to more than 200,000 Angolan refugees - half the total number of Angolan refugees in the region.

In October 2002, UNHCR launched an appeal for $29.4 million to aid the return of more than 200,000 Angolan refugees over a two year period (2003/2004). To date, the refugee agency has received just over $15 million of the funds requested from donors.

LIBERIA

UNHCR is very concerned about the latest reports of fighting on the outskirts of the Liberian capital, Monrovia. Yesterday afternoon, our staff in Monrovia said renewed fighting had been reported in Sastown, some 25 kms from the capital. This caused panic and provoked more frightened people to flee the conflict area towards the centre of Monrovia, which already has large numbers of displaced people. They include thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living in four Monrovia-area camps before fighting broke out in early June.

We are very worried that if the situation deteriorates further, it will affect the emergency evacuation of Sierra Leonean refugees which we started on July 4. Yesterday, the MV Overbeck -- the ship chartered by UNHCR to evacuate stranded Sierra Leonean refugees from Monrovia -- made its fourth voyage and evacuated an additional 299 Sierra Leonean refugees from Monrovia to Freetown, Sierra Leone. To date, we have assisted nearly 1,250 Sierra Leoneans.

Our national staff in Monrovia continue to register refugees who wish to return. At the same time, limited assistance, particularly food, is being provided to refugees still in some of the camps. Last week, we completed food distribution to some 3,500 refugees in Samukai camp. Food distribution to thousands of refugees in Banjor camp was started this week. More than half the population of 11,000 -- which includes refugees from VOA and Zuannah camps -- has received food. As our partners are unable to stockpile food or any other items in the camps, the food distribution is being carried out in phases.

Our staff are also making efforts to address the issue of harassment raised by refugees in the camps. Yesterday, our national staff met with government officials and agreed on the re-deployment of monitors in the camps. Before the fighting in June, UNHCR and government authorities had a regular presence in the camps to monitor the well-being of refugees. Depending on the situation, our national staff will also make daily visits to the camps.