Liberia + 4 more

UNHCR briefing notes: Liberia, Pakistan/Afghanistan, Memorials set for Annalena Tonelli, Angola

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News and Press Release
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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

The situation in Liberia remains tense in the lead-up to the inauguration of the Interim Government on October 14. There are reports of displacement in northern Liberia, around the towns of Totota and Salala.

However, an inter-agency mission that visited the central Liberia town of Gbarnga on Wednesday reported that there had been no major incident in that area since a team went there on September 30, when the town was practically empty. On Wednesday, however, around 2,000 people, mainly women and children, were gathered in the town during the team's visit. Leaders of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy appealed for assistance and promised aid agencies they will have access to areas under their control. The team found the UNHCR office and guest house in Gbarnga had been looted and there were indications that civilians were being mistreated by LURD soldiers. Heavy fighting broke out in central Liberia in mid-September prompting several thousand Liberians to flee into Guinea, but the situation has improved since.

In Monrovia, incidents of looting and robbery have been reported despite efforts by UN peacekeepers to collect weapons now in the hands of civilians and armed groups in the Liberian capital. An inter-agency effort in Monrovia is continuing to decongest internally displaced people -- estimated at more than 150,000 -- from 62 sites (schools, a stadium, houses and abandoned buildings). This is hampered by constant IDP movements, however. Often, displaced people move into places from which we have just relocated others in a sort of desperate game of musical chairs. But we are optimistic that the situation will improve once the 15,000 peacekeepers begin deploying throughout the country. On Wednesday, we began to help move hundreds of IDPs from six of 10 schools in Monrovia to an IDP facility in Fendell, about 15 kms north of the capital. We are constructing a building there that will accommodate 3,500 people.

In an ongoing effort to maintain an appropriate level of aid supplies in Monrovia, the UNHCR-chartered vessel Overbeck arrived this morning with blankets, jerry cans, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, and soap for 10,000 people. Containers with stocks for over 75,000 people are being shipped from Accra, Copenhagen and Freetown. UNHCR has so far distributed emergency relief for 40,000 people in Liberia.

2) PAKISTAN / AFGHANISTAN

Since we introduced state-of-the-art iris recognition tests for refugees seeking assistance to return to Afghanistan a year ago, we have so far seen more than 200,000 Afghans undergo what has proven to be a highly successful means to verify the identities of returnees. The use of the biometric data -- unique to each eye -- allows us to detect anyone who has previously been "enrolled" in the data base and is trying to seek assistance for a second time, which is not allowed. So far, the system has detected approximately 1,000 people who have tried to claim assistance for a second time. This is in addition to more than 70,000 families that were rejected last year under other screening methods, including more than 20,000 who were trying to recirculate through the system a second time.

Since a successful test project last October in Peshawar, some 202,000 refugees seeking UNHCR assistance under the voluntary repatriation programme have been checked. In July this year we have lowered the age of those tested to six years to ensure children are not being forced to make repeated trips with various adults -- an abuse of the assistance programme and a danger to the children. Only those with physical impediments or who are too young to use the equipment are exempt.

This is the first field-use of such non-intrusive technology anywhere in the world. It has performed flawlessly despite the harsh conditions in the heat and dust of Pakistan's border territories with Afghanistan. In addition to fixed locations, UNHCR is operating the equipment with mobile units to ease the return of refugees from remote areas. The actual enrolment process takes only a few seconds from when the returnee sits in front of the camera. Images of the iris, which appear on an adjoining computer screen, are transmitted to the computer server. The system converts the image into a digital code, which is then checked against the entire data base from all of our iris centres to see if there is a duplicate. If the code has not appeared before, the refugee is registered and given clearance to receive an assistance package on arrival in Afghanistan. Returnees are entitled to a travel grant that varies with the distance, several months of WFP food aid and some non-food items like shelter material. If the test reveals that the refugee has been enrolled before - and only about half of one percent are found to be "recyclers" - the person is refused assistance.

No information is recorded that can identify the individual tested - the code describing the iris has no link to the name, age, destination or anything else about the refugee. Since we began facilitating the return of Afghan refugees in early 2002, more than 2.4 million refugees have gone back, including more than 320,000 returnees from Pakistan so far this year.

Meanwhile, UNHCR this week organized the first convoy of internally displaced people returning from southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province back to their homes in the north. Thirty-six families (189 people) left Kandahar on Monday in 11 vehicles and yesterday reached their villages of origin in Morghab and Gormash areas in Badghis province, in north-western Afghanistan. The returning families will receive agricultural kits (seeds, shovel, sickle, watering can), plastic sheets, tents, lanterns, soap, hygiene cloths, family kits from UNICEF (spoons, bucket, cups, soap, bowl and plates) and WFP wheat flour.

Many of these families fled Badghis nearly two years ago and were staying in Zhare Dasht settlement or makeshift camps in Kandahar. They are all Pashtuns who had been harassed out of their homes following the fall of the Taliban or were caught in factional fighting.

Many more families have expressed their wish to go home this year, but UNHCR could not facilitate their return while fighting was on-going in Badghis province earlier this year. With tension between factions subsiding in that region and an easing of the tension and drought conditions, UNHCR has begun helping since summer many displaced people to return to Badghis province, mainly from camps to the west in Herat.

UNHCR hopes to continue the voluntary return movements from the south to the north, but there are still specific areas in the north that we cannot recommend due to on-going conflict between factions or human rights abuses.

There is an estimated 220,000 internally displaced people in Afghanistan, including some 140,000 in the southern provinces.

3) MEMORIALS SET FOR ANNALENA TONELLI

UNHCR will be represented at two memorial services that are scheduled for early next week in honour of Annalena Tonelli, the longtime aid worker in Somalia and this year's Nansen Refugee Award winner who was murdered in Somalia last Sunday. The services will be held in Italy (Monday) and in Nairobi, Kenya, (Tuesday). Working in obscurity, Dr. Tonelli devoted 33 years of her life to helping some of the poorest of the poor, including many refugees and displaced people.

The memorial service in Nairobi, planned for Tuesday morning (10 a.m.), is being organised by the U.N. family, its partners and friends of Dr. Tonelli. UNHCR will be represented by Mr. Anne Willem Bijleveld, our Geneva-based Director of the Division of Communication and Information. Other staff who worked closely with Dr. Tonelli in Borama, north-east Somalia, will also attend. Dr. Tonelli managed a 200-bed hospital for tuberculosis patients and raised awareness about HIV/AIDs and the harmful effects of female genital mutilation (FGM). The memorial service in Italy is scheduled for Monday evening (1900 hrs) at Tonelli's hometown, Forli in central Italy. UNHCR expects to send a representative to this memorial as well.

4) ANGOLA

UNHCR's voluntary repatriation program for Angolan refugees has reached the 35,000 mark since it got under way in June. Around 15,000 Angolans have returned from Zambia, mainly from Meheba camp near the border with Angola. On Saturday, the first convoy carrying 505 Angolans set out from Mayukwayukwa camp in western Zambia for the four-day trip over 2,000 km to Cazombo in the Angolan frontier province of Moxico. It is the second camp in Zambia, where UNHCR is organising return convoys. In addition, some 17,000 Angolan refugees have gone home from camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and 3,000 from Namibia. UNHCR plans to help return 220,000 Angolan refugees under a phased programme over two years.

Hundreds of thousands of uprooted Angolans have returned home since a peace agreement took hold early this year, ending three decades of civil strife in Angola. But because most areas in Angola do not have the basic infrastructure to make returns meaningful, UNHCR has decided to organise returns to areas with the capacity to receive the refugees in one of the world's most heavily-mined countries.

There are also some 13,000 refugees in Angola, mainly from the DRC. Last May, we moved 300 of them to a small settlement in Sungui in Bengo province, 72 kms north of Luanda. These refugees arrived in 1977 during the Katanga war. We have been providing them integration projects to enable them to become self sufficient in their farms in Sungui. But lately there have been reported incidents of harassment and robbery by armed men entering the settlement at night. There were also reports of Angolans claiming agricultural land allocated to the refugees. Equipment from a container of our NGO partner has been stolen. We have raised our concerns about these incidents with the Angolan authorities in Luanda.