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Refugees trickle home as UNHCR chief prepares to visit Iraq region

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GENEVA, July 15 (UNHCR) - Small groups of Iraqi refugees are spontaneously crossing back from Iran, as High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers leaves for Iraq to determine when the country may be ready to receive more returning refugees.
UNHCR staff in Basra, southern Iraq's principal city, report that some 50 to 100 refugees are returning daily over the nearby Al Shalamshah border post. The Iraqis are returning home without any assistance, after spontaneously leaving their longtime homes in Iran.

Iran hosts more than 200,000 Iraqi refugees, with 48,000 residing in 22 camps in the west of the country. Most live in smaller cities in the west but some reside in Tehran. The majority have resided in Iran since leaving more than 20 years ago, during the Iran-Iraq war. Some have been expelled from Iraq at various times, after having their citizenship papers destroyed by the Saddam Hussein regime.

On Monday, High Commissioner Lubbers said the agency would like to see Iraqi refugees desperate to return home from camps in Iran go back in a coordinated manner, rather than rush back to what UN officials see as a volatile and unstable situation. He made the remarks during a news conference in Geneva, after a meeting on Iraqi returns with representatives from several countries, including those that host Iraqi refugees.

UNHCR officials on the ground in Iraq say the fragile security situation and the lack of essential services and functioning civil administration means that the majority of up to some half million refugees and asylum seekers should wait for 2004 and beyond to go home.

Despite the agency's warnings, thousands of refugees in Saudi Arabia and Iran are clamoring to return home and threatening to cross borders uncontrollably. The refugee agency has responded by agreeing to assist some small-scale return movements over the next weeks, initially from Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp. Aid workers also expect to soon begin helping some refugees in Iran to repatriate to the Basra region. UNHCR says it plans to focus its initial efforts on women-headed households who want to rejoin relatives in Basra.

Aid workers in Iran's Ashrafi camp have already collected names of 100 long-exiled refugee families who will be among the first to officially return to Iraq.

High Commissioner Lubbers leaves Geneva today on an eight-day, four-country visit to the region. He is scheduled to arrive in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday where he will meet with King Abdullah, key government ministers and other officials.

Lubbers will travel into northern Iraq on Thursday to meet with Iraqi and UN officials in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, and visit camps sheltering refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). He is expected to arrive in Baghdad on Saturday, where he will meet Iraq's Chief Administrator, Ambassador Paul Bremer, Special Representative of the Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, and other officials.

Early next week, Lubbers will visit Basra to see refugee and IDP groups before traveling onwards to Iran where he will visit Ashrafi refugee camp, from where the first groups of Iraqi refugees will be helped back to their country.