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UNHCR briefing notes: Liberia, Iraq

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News and Press Release
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Kris Janowski - 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.

1) LIBERIA

More than 950 Sierra Leonean refugees have so far been assisted home from Liberia by UNHCR since the start of an emergency evacuation operation by sea on July 4.

On Saturday (July 12), the MV Overbeck chartered by UNHCR to evacuate thousands of stranded refugees in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, made its third voyage from Monrovia to the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, bringing 299 Sierra Leonean refugees to safety.

Returnees arriving in Sierra Leone report that many more refugees, particularly those in camps, desperately want to go home in the face of declining security in the Monrovia-area camps. Returnees spoke of night attacks on the camps by government soldiers. Significant numbers of refugees who fear looters, harassment and assault by fighters are now leaving the camps for other destinations in and around the Liberian capital.

Many of the returnees said they had lost property to government soldiers, particularly those manning checkpoints or along the streets of Monrovia.

The returnees, who spoke to UNHCR staff on arrival in Freetown yesterday (July 14), said their already difficult situation in Liberia worsened after the announcement of the indictment of President Charles Taylor, who subsequently made public statements against Sierra Leoneans in the country.

Some refugees who have small businesses in Liberia would like to resume their trading once the situation in Liberia stabilizes. Most businesses and banks in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, have remained closed since the outbreak of conflict at the beginning of June. Tens of thousands of people, among them refugees, now sheltering in public buildings and elsewhere throughout Monrovia have not returned to their homes or camps. Many fear they could be cut off again from the capital in the event of renewed fighting.

Meanwhile, our national staff in Monrovia continue to register Sierra Leonean refugees for emergency repatriation home. Limited assistance is being provided to those in camps. A food distribution to several thousand refugees in the Samukai camp was completed last Friday (July 11). Similar aid is being sent to refugees in Banjor camp.

2) IRAQ

According to our staff in southern Iraq, small numbers of Iraqi refugees are trickling back each day from Iran. Our field staff in Basra report 50 to 100 Iraqi refugees spontaneously crossing back from Iran daily, over the Shalamsha border crossing point, southeast of Basra.

Iran hosts more than 200,000 Iraqi refugees, with the majority settled in Iranian communities and some 48,000 living in 22 camps in the west of the country.

UNHCR would like to see Iraqi refugees desperate to return home from their camps in Iran channeled back to their country in a coordinated manner, and some small-scale facilitated return movements are planned over the coming weeks. Already we have collected 100 names from among vulnerable refugee families in Ashrafi camp - mainly female-headed families - who would like to repatriate as soon as possible to rejoin their relatives in the Basra area. We are currently discussing a starting date for these movements with the Iranian government and the Coalition Provisional Authority.

We are concerned that spontaneous return movements, like the crossings we are seeing at Shalamsha, mean that Iraqis are going back to uncertain situations. Our message to Iraqi refugees is to be patient. We do plan to start some small-scale return movements over the next weeks, initially from Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp and for some anxious vulnerable groups in Iran. The security situation and the lack of essential services and functioning civil administration in Iraq precludes larger scale returns for the time being.

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers leaves Geneva today on an eight-day, four country visit to the Iraq region. He arrives in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday and plans meetings with King Abdullah, key ministers and other officials.

Mr. Lubbers will arrive in northern Iraq on Thursday. While in northern Iraq he will meet with Iraqi and UN officials in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, and visit a camp sheltering displaced persons. On Saturday he arrives in Baghdad, where he will meet Iraq's Chief Administrator, Amb. Paul Bremer, as well as Special Representative of the Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Romero Lopes da Silva and other officials and UN staff. Early next week, Mr. Lubbers will visit Basra to see refugee and IDP groups, and travels onwards to Iran before returning to Geneva on Thursday after meetings in Kuwait.