The United Nations refugee agency is closing several camps in Iran following the departure of more than half the 202,000 Iraqis who sought refuge there, most of whom have returned home on their own initiative despite the violence wracking the country.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does not encourage Iraqis to repatriate now, but provides assistance to refugees in neighbouring countries who are determined to go back despite the difficult conditions inside Iraq.
Some 107,000 refugees have returned to Iraq from Iran since the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule last year, many after more than two decades in exile. Only 19,000 Iraqis in all have returned with UNHCR help – more than two-thirds of them from Iran, with the rest from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan.
Amongst refugees staying in camps, the rate of departure has been extremely high, with over 80 per cent choosing to repatriate. This has led to a sharp fall in the number in Iranian camps to 8,000 from 50,000. An estimated 95,000 Iraqi refugees remain in Iran, which still has the largest registered Iraqi refugee population in the world.
Six out of the 22 camps are now empty and another two are expected to be closed by the end of the year. Many of the remaining 14 camps are already nearly empty. UNHCR is working with the Iranian authorities on a phased programme to close some of these and consolidate others.
This will help guarantee that services are maintained at an existing level, since it is not possible in the long-term to continue running schools and clinics in camps with very small numbers of refugees.
The agency is working closely with the Iraqi authorities and implementing partners on the ground to help returning refugees and their communities by running shelter-building programmes, water projects and income-generating initiatives.