The United Nations refugee agency is stepping up its relief efforts in Iraq on several fronts, ranging from finding housing for hundreds of evicted Palestinians and registering undocumented Syrian refugees to providing aid for returning Iraqi Kurds forced from their homes by the previous regime.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has built temporary tents for more than 800 Palestinian families who have been evicted from their homes in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April. At least another 200 families have been given notice to vacate their flats by the end of June and the agency is negotiating with the United States-run Provisional Authority to allow the Palestinians to move to vacant government buildings as soon as possible.
UNHCR is also registering some 140 Syrian families, who left their country for Baghdad in the late 1960s and early '70s for political reasons, in order to provide them with proper documentation and to find out what they would like to do. They enjoyed protection under Saddam Hussein's regime but are now left to their own devices. Some have been evicted, while many do not have identity papers. Many say they would like to go back to Syria, but some prefer to be resettled to third countries or naturalized in Iraq.
On a third front in northern Iraq, UNHCR today distributed relief aid in two Iraqi Kurd villages under a programme to help stabilize communities whose residents had been forced from their homes by the previous government. At Bengawa and Talamater villages in Erbil's southern district of Makhmour, the agency handed out tents, kitchen sets, plastic sheeting, stoves, jerry cans, lanterns and blankets to 479 Iraqi Kurds in 64 families who had reoccupied their property.
These people had been forced from their homes in the mid-1980s as a result of Saddam Hussein's "Arabization policy" and had lived in appalling conditions in collective centres in Erbil and other cities. Since the end of the recent hostilities they have begun to return spontaneously to their original villages.
The return to Bengawa and Talamater came after the Provisional Authority and local officials helped resolve property disputes in the two villages, negotiating an arrangement with the Arab settlers for an equal sharing of this year's harvest of wheat and barley. However, property claims remain unresolved in many areas in northern Iraq.
Fearing new tensions over attempts to repossess property, UNHCR is working with the authorities to arrange for the peaceful resolution of these problems in a fair and equitable manner and to assist the displaced in their current locations.
"We know that the people who were uprooted from their homes have suffered enough, but we are appealing for a little more patience," Pierre-François Pirlot, UNHCR's regional coordinator for northern Iraq said. "Many areas where the internally displaced people and the refugees come from lack the basic infrastructure to make returns durable." He added that the presence of land mines and unexploded ordnance is another major concern.