UNHCR briefing notes: Ethiopia, Palestinians in Jordan, Liberia, Iraq

Report
from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 16 Dec 2003
(Extract)
Briefer: 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.

ETHIOPIA

The situation in Ethiopia's Gambella region remained tense for the third day following last Saturday's killing of eight people, among them three employees of UNHCR's main implementing partner in Ethiopia - the government's department of Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).

The group of eight, which included the three ARRA staff, two policemen and three construction workers, was killed in an ambush 18 kms from the western Ethiopia town of Gambella on Saturday morning. The group was on their way to Odier-Bol, a new site being developed for the relocation of some 24,000 refugees from the nearby Fugnido refugee camp, when their vehicle came under machine-gun fire. Four people died on the spot while four others, including the ARRA staff were killed as they tried to escape into the bush. It is not clear who was behind the killings.

The incident on Saturday unleashed a spiral of violence which has left an estimated 30 people dead and many more homeless after scores of homes were torched in what appeared to be reprisal attacks. By yesterday (Monday), shops, schools, offices and banks in Gambella remained closed. Domestic flights between the capital, Addis Ababa and Gambella were cancelled. The local hospital was reported to be overstretched as scores of wounded people were brought in.

By yesterday, there was a heavy military presence deployed by the government to restore calm. Sporadic gunfire that could be heard on Sunday subsided following the military deployment. On Monday, senior government officials arrived in the town close to the Ethiopia-Sudan border to negotiate peace between the warring ethnic groups.

As a precautionary measure, UNHCR has withdrawn non-essential staff from Gambella and has, this morning, sent in two security staff to make a detailed assessment of the security situation in the area, including the nearby Fugnido camp. The situation in Fugnido has remained calm. We are now waiting for recommendations from the security team before taking other security measures.

PALESTINIAN REFUGEES IN JORDAN

While on a private trip to Jordan last week, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie spent an afternoon at the refugee camp at Ruweished, near Jordan's eastern border with Iraq that houses more than 500 refugees from Iraq, mostly Palestinians. During her visit, Jolie thanked Jordan for providing sanctuary to people who left Iraq, and UNHCR is similarly grateful for the hospitality Jordan has long provided refugees.

We remain particularly concerned about the fate of 427 Palestinians in the border sites. Seventeen have travel documents issued by Egypt and Lebanon, while the majority hold Iraqi resident permits. The Palestinian Authority has said that it is willing to accept Palestinians seeking to go to the West Bank and Gaza.

We would like to meet with Palestinian and Israeli officials to arrange for these people to re-enter the Territories. We would also welcome initiatives from other countries in the region that would like to be part of a solution to this humanitarian problem and offer sanctuary to some of the Palestinians. The number of people involved is not large, and we hope that countries in the region will come forward to help find a solution for the Palestinians. Jordan has said that it wants to see the Ruweished camps closed. All the refugees are living under tents in winery conditions out in the desert zone.

LIBERIA

UNHCR teams in Liberia will today start the registration of some 7,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in SKD Stadium, 15 kms east of Monrovia. The registration, which will be carried out in collaboration with OCHA, WFP, LRRRC (Liberian Refugees Repatriation and Resettlement Commission) and several NGOs, will result in the relocation of these IDPs to official camps for the displaced in the Montserrado area on the outskirts of the Liberian capital.

An information campaign was carried out to inform the IDPs in advance of their relocation to the camps. During the registration, heads of family will be able to indicate their names and preferences for one camp or another, depending on space availability.

The relocation itself should be completed in two days, hopefully later this week. Fifteen UNHCR trucks will be used to transport the IDPs to six camps: Mount Barclay, Seigbeh, Fendel, Unification, Ricks and Blamasee. We will also provide non-food items such as mats, blankets and kitchen sets. IDPs will spend a week in a UNHCR transit center within the camps before being provided with construction materials in order to build their own houses or huts.

The relocation allows for a re-opening of the stadium in the near future for sport activities, as requested by Liberian authorities. The operation is the continuation of a program started in September to decongest the public buildings and other facilities occupied by IDPs in and around Monrovia. After fighting in Monrovia in June, some 47,000 people ended up in SKD Stadium, many of them already displaced from previous wars in Liberia. Nearly a third of the IDPs in SKD Stadium are originally from strife-torn Lofa County, in the north of Liberia. There were also some refugees from Sierra Leone who had fled camps in Liberia. There are presently an estimated 11,000 people remaining in SKD Stadium, including about 7,000 IDPs. The rest are believed to be vulnerable residents of the area.

Meanwhile, UNHCR has had to reschedule several missions to Harper, Zwedru and Saclepea, in the east of the country, due to rampant insecurity that plagued the kick-off of the disarmament and demobilisation of ex-combatants in Liberia, on 7 December. Riots and looting erupted country-wide last week after disgruntled ex-combatants demanded that the stipend, which they were originally due to receive after a three-week demobilisation training, be paid to them immediately upon surrendering their weapons. UNMIL - the UN Mission in Liberia - and UN agencies finally agreed last week to give a $75 cash grant in the camp to each fighter turning in a weapon, ending several days of unrest which left at least 12 people dead in the capital.

Because of the high level of insecurity, humanitarian agencies were not able to work in the cantonment camp at camp Schieffelin, some 56 kms east of Monrovia, or to provide services to ex-combatants in the camp. However as of yesterday, 7,754 weapons had been collected by UNMIL and more than 9,000 ex-combatants from the government forces had registered.

The disarmament and demobilization of ex-combatants in Liberia will be suspended tomorrow and will resume after the holiday season on January 20, 2004. According to UNMIL, this time will be used to increase the capacity and improve living conditions in camp Schieffelin.

UNMIL and UN agencies will also prepare for the opening of new sites for ex-combatants of the LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and MODEL (Movement for democracy in Liberia) rebel forces. An estimated 40,000 rebels and government soldiers are potentially to be disarmed and reintegrated into civilian life after 14 year of constant wars in the country.

UNHCR has supplied non-food items to the disarmament camp of Schieffelin - including plastic mats and blankets, jerry cans, soap, kitchen sets, cooking pots and lanterns. We also plan to provide advice on camp management once the disarmament and demobilization operations resume in January.

IRAQ

Some 500 Iraqi refugees have returned to Iraq this week in convoys facilitated by UNHCR. Two hundred and forty five refugees returned from Iran's Mothari and Ansar camps in southwestern Khuzestan Province yesterday in a convoy of six buses and 17 trucks. This was the third convoy to go back from Iran since we began facilitating last month the return of refugees anxious to return and unwilling to wait for the security situation to improve. Most were going home to Basra, while others were headed for Karbala and Najaf. For the last 20 years, Iran has sheltered an estimated 200,000 Iraqi refugees who fled during the Iran-Iraq war, with most living among Iranian host communities and only 48,000 in camps.

This morning, another convoy of 254 refugees from the 1991 Gulf war returned to Iraq after leaving Saudi Arabia's Rafha camp late yesterday in five buses and eight trucks. This was our 13th convoy to leave Rafha since July. The returning refugees transited Kuwait overnight, returning to Basra, Al Muthanna, Karbala, Baghdad, Kyala and Wasit. Only about 1,000 Iraqis remain in Rafha after the return so far of 4,200. All the returning refugees are met my UNHCR national staff upon their arrival and given various assistance items and tents if they require emergency shelter.

This week, we shifted ten trucks loaded with relief items from our stockpile in Kermanshah, Iran, to our southern Iraq stockpile in Basra. Among the goods delivered to Iraq this week were 1,000 tents, 500 plastic tarpaulins, 6,000 blankets, 1,200 cooking and heating stoves, 2,000 kitchen sets and 6,000 jerry cans.

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