Côte d'Ivoire + 3 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Iraq, West Africa

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News and Press Release
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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

First, I'd like to urge you to regularly check the new "Iraq Emergency" page on the UNHCR website (www.unhcr.ch) - - perhaps a couple of times a day, because that is where we're posting all public information materials on our activities in the region. Just go to the home page and click on Iraq Emergency. In addition to daily updates, it contains a lot of background information, maps, graphics and charts you may find useful. One example is the chart on Iraqi asylum seekers around the world, hard copies of which are at the back of the room.

General overview: So far, UNHCR offices in the region have not reported any mass movements of refugees into neighboring states. You've probably seen reports of third country nationals leaving Iraq, but please keep in mind that these people are not refugees. The High Commissioner, as you know, has called on neighboring states to keep their borders open so people fleeing Iraq can receive temporary protection and assistance.

We currently have relief supplies in place in the region for some 300,000 people and should reach 350,000 by the end of this month.

UNHCR requires $60 million to cover a contingency planning figure of 600,000 possible refugees in the region for a month and so far, we have received $22 million.

Iran: The border areas remained quiet as of mid-day today. There were sketchy reports yesterday of groups of 300 to 3,000 moving toward Iran and being stopped at the border, but our border monitors could not confirm any of these reports. As you know, the Iranian authorities have said repeatedly that in the event of war in Iraq, the borders will be sealed. But the President has assured the High Commissioner that Iran is prepared to meet its humanitarian obligations and allow refugees into Iran if lives are in danger.

Meanwhile, UNHCR's preparations are in full swing to meet the needs initially of 60,000 refugees, should there be an influx. We have provided $1 million dollars to the Iranian refugee agency, BAFIA, for the construction of infrastructure in four refugee camp sites in Iran's southwestern provinces of Kermanshah, Khuzestan and Ilam. The funds are for the clearing of land mines, levelling and building of water and sanitation facilities. For several months, we have also been stockpiling supplies in our warehouses in the key western cities of Kermanshah and Ahwaz, close to the four camp sites. We are prepared to distribute tents, blankets, jerry cans, kitchen sets, sanitary napkins, stoves and lamps to those who are in need.

Initially, these four sites will each have a capacity to care for 15,000 refugees, or a total of 60,000. Their capacities can be quickly expanded to care for 150,000 people. In addition, six other camp sites have been identified in the provinces along the southwestern frontier and can be immediately put into operation as the need arises. Levelling and clearance of land mines and unexploded ordinance from the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war have been completed in these six additional sites, which could accommodate up to 500,000 people.

Turkey: Two UNHCR monitoring teams based in southern Turkey were scheduled to go to the border with northern Iraq this morning to monitor the situation along the Turkish side. One team will be monitoring the eastern part of the border, starting from Hakkari, while the second will work from Habur gate towards the east. The two teams will try to determine the location of camps that have been mentioned by the Turkish government. The state minister in charge of emergency coordination, Mr. Mehmet Ali Sahin, stated yesterday that Turkish camps have been set up on both sides of the border. UNHCR in Turkey works with the government and the Turkish Red Crescent Society to assist refugees.

Jordan: UNHCR staff in Jordan are on-duty along the border with Iraq, both at the Al Karama crossing and in Ruwaished, where two camps are being established for Iraqi refugees and third country nationals.

UNHCR has so far committed $1.13 million for preparatory measures in Jordan to help the government assist any refugees who may arrive. Of this sum, we have already provided $575,000 to the government and national and international relief agencies.

This week UNHCR signed agreements with the Ministry of Planning for $991,000, of which $470,000 has already been spent on site preparation, water drilling and distribution and electrical works at the Ruwaished refugee camp and in the border area by various government ministries.

We are erecting tents today at the Al Karama border crossing with Iraqi to shelter any refugees who may arrive.

The Swiss Embassy in Jordan has been very supportive of UNHCR's activities, and has provided some $680,000 earmarked for UNHCR Jordan. The Australian Embassy in Amman has announced plans to provide $800,000 for activities in Jordan.

2) - U.S. POLICY ON ASYLUM SEEKERS

UNHCR is concerned by a new U.S. government policy to mandatorily detain asylum-seekers based on nationality. UNHCR fully recognizes and supports the need for heightened security measures during these tenuous times of increased insecurity. We would hope, however, that measures to protect civilians and ensure U.S. security would not target those persons who are themselves fleeing persecution and looking for safety in the United States.

"Operation Liberty Shield" calls for the automatic and continued detention of arriving asylum-seekers from over 30 classified countries and territories throughout immigration proceedings. In a letter to the U.S. Government yesterday, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers noted: "Detention of asylum- seekers should be the exception, not the rule and should be based on an individualized assessment of the security risk the person poses." Blanket mandatory detention based on nationality varies from accepted international human rights norms and standards.

UNHCR shares U.S. concerns about potential abuse of the asylum system. The U.S. asylum system already has in place a number of screenings to identify those individuals who pose potential security risks. U.S. asylum law and the 1951 Refugee Convention exclude any persons engaged in terrorist acts from refugee protection.

The tendency to link asylum seekers and refugees to terrorism is a dangerous and erroneous one. Asylum-seekers who reach the United States have themselves escaped acts of persecution and violence, including terrorism, and have proven time and again that they are the victims and not the perpetrators of these attacks. They have often been stripped of their dignity, homes and livelihoods and have lost loved ones. The United States has always been a generous and safe harbor for those victims of war, persecution and human suffering. UNHCR hopes these people in need will continue to find safety and dignity on US shores.

3) UNHCR ISSUES WEST AFRICA APPEAL

As the world's attention focuses on the war in Iraq, UNHCR is also facing an extremely urgent challenge in West Africa. We are presently assisting 120,000 people directly affected by the six-month conflict in and around Côte d'Ivoire. Hundreds of thousands of others have been displaced inside the country itself. The humanitarian situation remains very preoccupying in a region where conflicts and instability are rife.

We are today issuing a revised appeal for a total of US$29 million to cover the needs of some 163,000 people who could be affected by the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire in 2003. The fresh funds would allow us to assist mixed populations - - refugees and returnees - - fleeing the Ivorian conflict. Ivorian refugees and Liberians living in Côte d'Ivoire have fled to several neighbouring countries, including strife-torn Liberia where conditions are extremely difficult. Other Liberians who remain in Côte d'Ivoire are finding themselves in an extremely vulnerable situation, facing hostility, harassment and military recruitment by both sides.

Among the 120,000 persons assisted by UNHCR in the wake of the Ivorian crisis are the 42,000 Ivorian refugees - mainly in Liberia and Guinea - who have fled since September. UNHCR estimates that this figure could more than double if the situation does not stabilise rapidly inside Côte d'Ivoire. New camps need to be established in Liberia, where the security situation at the border is currently hampering our relief efforts. In Guinea, where refugees have been transferred to existing camps, urgent site rehabilitation or extension is needed to cater for the new influx.

Meanwhile, more than 40,000 Liberians who were living in western Côte d'Ivoire have been compelled to return home since November. This figure could still increase by another 15,000. Until now we have only been able to provide these returnees with limited assistance, because of the unexpected pace and size of the returns. UNHCR has assisted them with transport home, or to camps for the displaced for those whose area of origin remains unsafe. We plan to extend our transit facilities and provide each returnee with a basic assistance package, as well as some support to the communities of return consisting of schools and hospitals rehabilitation and improvements to the water and sanitation systems.

Out of an initial population of 70,000 before the crisis, UNHCR estimates that 35,000 Liberians remain in Côte d'Ivoire today. We are planning to evacuate some 5,000 of them to a third country in the region because of their extreme vulnerability. As the spontaneous outflow towards their home country continues, we estimate that about 10,000 Liberian refugees will eventually remain in Côte d'Ivoire. We have asked the Ivorian government to identify a new site in a safe area where refugees from Nicla and from Abidjan could receive protection and assistance.

To carry out essential distribution of basic items, UNHCR has established an emergency regional stockpile in Accra, Ghana, with sufficient relief material for 20,000 people. The stockpile will be extended to cater for 50,000.

The $29 million appeal will constitute UNHCR's portion of the UN consolidated appeal for the Ivorian crisis, due to come out shortly. UNHCR funds will be used primarily for transport, logistics and infrastructure, as well as protection, monitoring of borders and domestic items. In December, UNHCR had launched an initial appeal of US$ 6.1 million for three months. The appeal received a very good response, with over $6 million in contributions from France, USA, Germany, UK, Sweden, Canada, Ireland, Italy and Andorra.

4) WORLD WATER DAY

Tomorrow, March 22, is World Water Day. Access to safe water is a basic human right. In a refugee context, it is very often the key to life or death for people who have had to flee their homes from war and persecution. Right now, water is a crucial issue in preparations underway by relief agencies to cope with a possible refugee outflow in the countries neighbouring Iraq. In Jordan, for example, proposed refugee sites are located in the east of the country, where water is scarce. The Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation has had to dig several boreholes to more than 300 meters down to reach water to supply the proposed refugee sites in this area. Because the water found is too saline to drink, desalination equipment also had to be brought in. With these measures, which cost us about US$6 per cubic meter, there appears to be sufficient water for the Ruwaished site designed to initially shelter up to 10,000 people. Similar challenges could confront other countries in the region which may receive refugees.

World Water Day is particularly relevant this year, which has been declared the International Year of Freshwater. According to UNHCR's emergency guidelines, the minimum amount of water required for survival is 7 litres per refugee per day, which should be increased to 15 to 20 liters per day as soon as possible. This can be a difficult level to reach, particularly in some of the remote or desert-like environments where refugees flee.

Worldwide, UNHCR, through its implementing partners, carries out 285 activities in 46 countries to provide safe water for refugees. These range from trucking water to refugee sites and drilling wells to running and maintaining generators and water pumps to keep water systems functioning.

In light of the International Year of Freshwater, UNHCR has launched a global survey on water supply for refugees to identify the major gaps in providing safe water to the 20 million refugees and others of concern to UNHCR worldwide. Preliminary indications reveal that there are still several programs, specifically in Africa, in which UNHCR has not been able to fulfil the prescribed minimum level of water supply to our persons of concern. The survey, which should be completed later this year, will help UNHCR better direct and shape its water projects.