UNHCR briefing notes: Iraq, Colombia, West Africa

Report
from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 09 May 2003
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.
(NOTE TO MEDIA: Former High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata on Tuesday will launch the "Report of the Commission on Human Security." The 170-page report covers a wide range of issues linked to human security, which is threatened in many areas of the world by wars, despotism and economic deprivation. The report also suggests ways of dealing with some of these challenges. It was put together by the Commission on Human Security - an assembly of 12 prominent persons, including Mrs. Ogata and the 1998 Nobel Economic Prize winner, Professor Amartyan Sen. Mrs. Ogata and the former President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cornelio Sommaruga, will jointly address a press conference on the report at Geneva's Auditorium Jacques Freymond, 132 rue de Lausanne, at 6 p.m. local time. All those interested are welcome. The full report and other information can be found on the Commission on Human Security website at www.humansecurity-chs.org)

1) IRAQ

We are increasingly concerned about a growing number of Palestinian refugees who have been evicted from their homes in Baghdad. This morning, a UNHCR convoy carrying basic supplies for the homeless Palestinians left Jordan and is expected in Baghdad this afternoon. Reports from the city suggest that around 1,000 Palestinian refugees have already been forced to leave their homes since the end of the war and are camping in disused buildings and various open areas around the Iraqi capital.

In another, similar development, a UNHCR team in southern Iraq has discovered dozens of Iranian refugees who have also been ejected from their homes by local communities.

Today's convoy of aid will help cover the immediate needs of the homeless Palestinians. The three-truck convoy is transporting materials for up to 2,000 people, including 400 tents, 1,200 mattresses and 2,000 blankets as well as stoves, jerry cans and soap. The aid materials will be handed over to the Palestinian Red Crescent who will distribute them to the Palestinians.

UNHCR fears that more of the 60-90,000 Palestinian refugees believed to be living in Iraq may lose their homes, as other landlords reclaim property they were forced to rent out for miniscule sums to the Ba'ath government on behalf of the refugees. Since the fall of the regime, even this money - sometimes as little as US$1 per month - has not been paid to the owners of the property.

On Wednesday, a UNHCR team operating out of Basra, in southern Iraq, discovered several families of Iranian refugees living in a disused transit centre on the edge of the city. The refugees reported that they had been expelled from their homes in Dujaila - a refugee settlement near Al Kut, about half way between Basra and Baghdad. They said their property and crops had been confiscated. While the UNHCR team was still in the centre two more families arrived from Dujaila citing similar reasons. The team subsequently proceeded to the Iranian border where they discovered three more Iranian refugee families displaced from Dujaila, who were trying to get permission to repatriate to Iran. You can find more details in the press release we have issued this morning. Copies are at the back.

2) COLOMBIAN ASYLUM SEEKERS IN ECUADOR

The number of Colombians seeking asylum in Ecuador continues to surge, with over 5,100 asking for protection in the first four months of 2003. This is more than four times the number of new asylum seekers for the same period last year, when 1,193 Colombians asked for asylum in Ecuador.

The upsurge coincides with a deterioration of the conflict in Colombia, particularly in the border areas. The Colombian department of Nariño, which borders on Ecuador, has seen a marked increase in fighting since January with intensified clashes both among the various irregular armed groups in Colombia as well as between these groups and government forces. The fighting has also caused an increase in internal displacement in Nariño itself, with people fleeing from rural areas to urban centers. Displacement within urban areas and from one urban area to another has also increased. The situation is reportedly worsening as well in Putumayo, also bordering on Ecuador, and in Caqueta, the department next to Putumayo further inland in Colombia.

In Ecuador, UNHCR is supporting the government to deal with the increased number of new arrivals, providing training and equipment to government officials dealing with asylum requests and helping to fund additional government staff to cope with the applications. Since February 2003, a new identification document system for asylum seekers and refugees has been implemented by UNHCR in coordination with the Ecuadorian government.

UNHCR has also deployed two additional staff to Ecuador and is working together with the Church, Red Cross, Fundación Fabian Ponce and other organisations in Ecuador. In the border zone itself, UNHCR staff travel throughout the area, monitoring border crossings, identifying new arrivals and assessing their needs. UNHCR implementing partners provide assistance to asylum seekers such as health care and emergency kits for particularly vulnerable families. UNHCR and its partners have established five reception centers in the border area to provide temporary shelter to new arrivals. UNHCR is also supporting the refugee hosting communities to facilitate integration of the refugees and asylum seekers.

The number of Colombians seeking asylum in Ecuador has increased markedly over the past three years, from just 413 applications in 2000 to 4,275 in 2001 and 6,270 in 2002. In all, since the beginning of 2000, over 16,000 Colombians have sought asylum in Ecuador. During the same period, 4,225 asylum seekers have been granted refugee status by the Ecuadorian government.

The increasing numbers of asylum seekers have led to a significant backlog in processing requests that both the Ecuadorian authorities and UNHCR are addressing. This is an ongoing challenge than requires increased numbers of processing officers and / or reviews of existing procedures.

UNHCR appreciates the ongoing efforts and generosity of Ecuador to receive the asylum seekers fleeing the violence in Colombia and to ensure that those in need of protection can remain in safety. While UNHCR has obtained support for the Ecuadorian operation from donors, the increasing trends and the emerging needs of refugees mean more will be needed.

3) HIGH COMMISSIONER TO WEST AFRICA

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers leaves tomorrow (Saturday, 10 May) on an eight-day mission to five West African nations - - Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. West Africa has been one of Mr. Lubbers' priorities since he went there on his very first field mission as High Commissioner in early 2001. There are enormous needs in the region - - needs that we fear have been completely overshadowed by recent events in Iraq and elsewhere.

Overall, the West Africa region accounts for more than 520,000 refugees, about 400,000 of them in the five nations that Mr. Lubbers will be visiting. While there have been marked improvements in some areas since his 2001 mission, UNHCR remains very concerned about continuing instability in Liberia and by the fragile situation in Côte d'Ivoire.

In all five countries, the High Commissioner will meet with UNHCR staff and our UN and NGO partners. He wants to get a first-hand look at UNHCR's efforts to help Liberian refugees in western Côte d'Ivoire and will travel to that region on Sunday. On Monday, he is scheduled to meet several government officials in Abidjan, including President Laurent Gbagbo and Prime Minister Seydou Diarra.

He is scheduled to travel to Accra, Ghana, on Tuesday, when he will meet President John Agyekum Kufuor and other officials, as well as visit the Buduburam Refugee Settlement.

On Wednesday, Mr. Lubbers is scheduled to travel to Monrovia, Liberia, where he will spend most of the day before flying on late afternoon to Freetown, Sierra Leone. In Monrovia, he is scheduled to meet President Charles Taylor and other officials and visit camps for refugees and internally displaced.

On Thursday, he will meet Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and other officials before traveling to Tobanda camp and other settlements and programs for both returnees and Liberian refugees. Mr. Lubbers wants to see the enormous progress that has been made in Sierra Leone over the past few years, including a UNHCR-assisted repatriation program that has helped more than 220,000 people return home since 2000.

On Friday afternoon, he will travel to Conakry, Guinea, where he is scheduled to meet with various government officials before traveling on Saturday to the Nzerekore region in the south of the country, where he will visit Liberian and Ivoirian refugees. On Sunday, he returns to Conakry for a daylong series of meetings before departing in the evening for Geneva.

END