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UNHCR Briefing Notes: North Caucasus, Ethiopia

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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
Ron Redmond

1. North Caucasus

The first UNHCR convoy carrying UN humanitarian aid to Chechnya should be arriving in Grozny by 2 p.m. this afternoon local time - that's midday here in Geneva. The 10-truck convoy, which is carrying 45 tons of food and other supplies, left UNHCR's base of operations in Stavropol, southern Russia, yesterday morning and spent the night in Mozdok, North Ossetia. It left Mozdok at 7:30 a.m. today for the last leg of the journey to Grozny.

The trucks are provided by our Russian partner, Emercom, and driven by local drivers. The convoy is being accompanied by UNHCR local staff. We are delivering 45 metric tons of food (flour, millet, peas, sugar, barley), as well as 900 pieces of plastic sheeting; 10,000 bars of soap; 230 mattresses; and over 1,300 blankets.

As I mentioned on Friday, this convoy is viewed as something of a pilot project to give us an idea of the security and logistics involved in getting aid into Chechnya. We want to ensure that the aid can be distributed quickly and safely to those who need it most.

There are no firm figures on the number of civilians remaining in Grozny, but estimates seem to be in the range of 20,000 or more.

Since mid-September, UNHCR has sent 42 convoys to the North Caucasus, including 34 to Ingushetia, five to Dagestan, one to North Ossetia, one to Karachaevo-Cherkessia, and today's to Grozny. The cost of all of these convoys is more than $4 million and we've delivered more than 5,000 tons of aid.

UNHCR is concerned about accounts from displaced people who report widespread displacement from villages in the Argun Valley, site of current military activities. Some reports say thousands of villagers are fleeing in advance of the military offensive as it moves southward. IDP accounts describe direct shelling of villages, including Shatoy and Bolshie, and intense fighting around other villages, such as Hum-Kali.

According to the Ingush Migration Service, some 1,800 internally displaced people arrived in Ingushetia last week from Chechnya (new arrivals) and 763 returned to Chechnya for good. Many of the new arrivals are women and children from some of the most heavily destroyed locations in Chechnya, including Katar-Yurt and Khikhichu. Many of the IDPs said they would like to return home to Chechnya, but are afraid to do so because of lawlessness and reports that all males are being temporarily detained for identification purposes. IDPs told UNHCR monitors that in the Argun district, all males aged 15 and older are detained by the local police ( Ministry of Interior Affairs) for establishnment of their identity. The IDPs said some of these males had not returned from detention.

2. Ethiopia

From tomorrow, March 1, UNHCR will no longer confer automatic refugee status on Ethiopians who fled their country before 1991 under the Mengistu regime.

Ethiopians in all countries of asylum will be affected by this change of status.

UNHCR will assist them if they choose to repatriate. Others will go through a screening process and will continue to be protected under the refugee law only if they can still claim valid fear of persecution in Ethiopia.

In the eighties, Sudan had hosted more than 500,000 Ethiopian refugees. An estimated 12,000 are still living in camps in the eastern part of the country.

After having been informed of their options through an information campaign in December last year, 3,800 of them have already applied for voluntary return. In co-operation with the Sudanese authorities, the screening process for those who are reluctant to return will start in the camps in mid-March in order to find alternative solutions in accordance with Sudanese immigration laws.

Since democratic elections in 1995, the Ethiopian Government has declared its willingness to welcome home all refugees who fled under the Mengistu regime and has committed itself to assisting them in their reintegration.

During the coming weeks, a similar registration exercise for return will be carried out in Kenya, which hosts 3,600 Ethiopians who are mainly integrated in urban areas.

Almost one million Ethiopians have returned home from Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya in the past 10 years.

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