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UN Team Makes Second Visit To Southern Iraq

UN Team Makes Second Visit To Southern Iraq Since Deadly Bombing Last August

A United Nations team has visited southern Iraq to assess conditions there, just the second time since most international staff were withdrawn from the country following the deadly bombing of UN offices last August, the UN refugee agency said today.

Led by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) chief of mission for Iraq, the team visited Basra on Sunday at the request of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Acting Special Representative, Ross Mountain, according to a spokesman for the agency.

The team spent a day in Iraq’s second city after crossing over from Kuwait to assess the security situation and overall conditions on the ground and meet with colleagues and partner agencies, spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva. “They reported that Basra appears busier, in part due to the return of many Iraqis to the south,” he said, cautioning that if the flow of people is not regulated, “economic hardship and social unrest will increase.”

Citing Iraqi statistics, Mr. Redmond said more than 122,000 refugees have returned to Iraq's nine southern governorates since last year, although UNHCR is unable to verify these figures. “Authorities in Iran have spoken about the spontaneous repatriation of more than 70,000 Iraqis who were formerly mainly settled amongst the local population,” he added.

Since last July, more than 9,000 refugees have returned on UNHCR-facilitated convoys, including over 4,800 from Saudi Arabia’s Rafha camp and the balance from camps in western Iran.

A large majority of the returnees have never before lived in Iraq, which puts enormous additional strains on the housing situation, Mr. Redmond noted. “Together with partners we are looking at providing housing for the most needy,” he said.

The spokesman also noted that the 18th convoy carrying Iraqis opting for voluntary repatriation from Saudi Arabia's Rafha Camp arrived in Basra on Sunday after transiting through Kuwait overnight.

Rafha currently shelters fewer than 500 refugees, down from more than 33,000 who were assisted immediately following the 1991 Persian Gulf War after many were resettled and others opted to return. The returnees are provided with repatriation grants from UNHCR, as well as plastic tarpaulins and other relief items.

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