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Iraqi Refugees In Iran Held Up By Red Tape -- UN

Iraqi refugees in Iran held up by red tape and border closures, UN says

12 June 2008 - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that some 300 ethnic Arab Iraqi refugees in Jahrom camp in southern Iran have been waiting since last year for security clearance from the Iraqi authorities before they can return, while another 200 refugees in the camp have also expressed interest in returning to their home country.

Complicated clearance procedures have delayed repatriation for some refugees - until recently applications were sent via Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad for processing. In addition, there have been sporadic closures of the borders at Shalamcheh and Mehran since April for security reasons.

"I used to work in a cement factory for shelter construction," 50-year-old Iraqi Abdul Karim told the UN refugee agency. "After I registered for repatriation, I sold all my equipment, thinking it would take one to two months. Now we're hearing that security clearance has not come. How long should we wait? My children and I have no jobs. We didn't know it would take this long," he added.

Mr. Karim is among hundreds of thousands of mostly Shia Muslims who fled persecution under the late President Saddam Hussein's regime and sought refuge in Iran between the 1970s and the early 1990s. Many returned home in the second half of the 1990s.

The fall of the Baathist regime in 2003 led to another wave of returns from Iran, most of them ethnic Arabs.

"Unlike the gradual nature of the influx, repatriation took place overnight," said Shokrollah Kazemifar, the director-general of Iran's Bureau of Aliens and Foreign Immigrant Affairs in Ahwaz, south-western Iran, near the Iraqi border. "Once they decided to go, they demolished their homes and took everything."

Gaitrie Ammersing, UNHCR's protection officer in Ahwaz, noted several reasons for this: "Some refugees say the security situation and job opportunities are gradually improving in southern Iraq. They also tell us it is now much easier to obtain Iraqi documents upon return."

Others say it is getting harder to survive in Iran. "Life is hard here. I work nearby but it's not always easy to find jobs," said Attaye Heidari, who has lived in south-western Iran's Bani Najjar camp for the last 16 years. "I'm hard pressed and thinking about return. I believe life will be better in Basra."

More than 18,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran have been assisted home since November 2003, mostly to areas such as Baghdad and the southern governorates. Numbers peaked in 2004, with over 12,500 returns. Some 230 have repatriated from Iran to the north and south of Iraq so far this year.

The UN refugee agency does not encourage returns to Iraq at the moment, due to the fragile security situation. But it provides some assistance to those who insist on going. This includes interviewing them to make sure return is voluntary and providing a cash grant to help them with transport and initial reintegration costs. And recent developments may help speed their return.

"A new Iraqi consul has been set up in Ahwaz, which should expedite the process instead of going through Amman and Baghdad," explained Carlos Zaccagnini, UNHCR's representative in Iran, during a recent visit to the camp. "It will cost US$25 for each family to apply for security clearance there."

There are an estimated 54,000 registered Iraqi refugees living in Iran today, the large majority of them living outside camps, in urban areas.

ENDS

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