Returns of Iraqi refugees from Iran facilitated by the office of the UN High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have been temporarily suspended due to security concerns.
"UNHCR is always concerned about the security situation, be it for their own staff, their partners, the returnees and the displaced," spokeswoman for the agency's Iraq operations, Astrid Van Genderen Stort, told IRIN from the Jordanian capital, Amman.
In a press briefing on Tuesday, Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, said the decison had been made following reports from the southern Iraqi city of Basra that local drivers were refusing to take passengers from the Iraqi side of the border into Basra in fear of illegal checkpoints and hijackings.
One convoy of 208 refugees living in the Iranian city of Shiraz, was delayed on Tuesday for this reason but finally managed to pass through the border at Shalamsheh with an escort, as partners on both sides felt confident about safe transportation. However, other convoys have been suspended, Van Genderen Stort said.
According to the UNHCR official, the refugee agency is not promoting returns, but has been facilitating them due to requests from refugees and because many were resorting to desperate measures and trying to cross a dangerously heavily mined border.
An estimated 120,000 have already returned, with UNHCR facilitating 10,000 from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon since last July. Half of this figure were from Iran as the country's southwestern region hosted the largest Iraqi community, some 202,000. Most fled during the 1970's and 80's in fear of persecution and again during the Gulf War in 1991.
In the briefing, Kessler cited the lack of humanitarian organisations now operating in the south due to insecurity, "seriously affecting the amounts of assistance that can be provided to returnees and displaced people."
The refugee agency recently reported that there were more than 30,000 extremely vulnerable returnees in the southern Iraqi Thi-Qar governorate who had received assistance in the form of blankets, plastic sheeting, cooking stoves and kitchen sets.
In addition to this, UNHCR reported further displacement caused by flooding in parts of the southern governorates of Al-Muthanna, Thi-Qar and Missan.
While water was receding and reinforcement of dikes continued, it was reported that one dike had burst in Missan, leaving some 3,000 people displaced. Kessler said that NGOs working with UNHCR were trying to reach affected areas to provide assistance security permitting.
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