The IRC Helps Iraqi Kurdish Refugees Return Home
Eighteen-year old Khadijah hadn’t been home in 11 years. But with last week’s opening of a new border crossing at Hajj Omran in northern Iraq and with the assistance of the IRC, Kurdish refugees like Khadijah can now return to their homeland from Iran through a more direct route.
On June 23, the first convoy of 80 Kurdish returnees, including Khadijah, her parents and six siblings, left the Ziveh refugee camp in Iran and crossed through Hajj Omran into Iraqi Kurdistan. Upon their arrival, they were greeted by IRC staff and a joyful crowd of relatives.
As the UNHCR’s partner agency in the region, the IRC provided the returnees with food, medical exams, landmine awareness information and other forms of support at a newly-opened IRC reception center near the border. Transportation for the returnees and their belongings was also provided to final destinations in Erbil and Dohuk.
“This is the first time in years that there’s been a facilitated process and formal support for returning Iraqi Kurdish refugees, some of who have been gone for 30 years,” said the IRC’s Deputy Director in Iraq, John Kilkenny. “The relative stability and security in northern Iraq now makes it possible for more people to come back from Iran.”
Thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled to Iran in various waves, beginning in 1975 with the first failed Kurdish uprising against the Baathist regime. Another large exodus came in 1988, during Saddam Hussein’s brutal Anfal campaign that targeted ethnic Kurds. Countless villages were destroyed as many Kurdish women and children were collectivized into large-scale ghetto communities. Large numbers of adult males were detained and then disappeared, their fates unknown until the recent discovery of mass graves in the region. Many others escaped to Iran. With the onset of the first Gulf War in 1991, the refugee population increased even further and today, 40,000 Iraqi refugees live in camps on the Iranian side of the border.
UNHCR estimates that 8,000 Iraqi Kurds will use the Hajj Omran crossing in the next several months as their entry point home. However, many refugees are concerned about the level of assistance they will receive once they return, particularly with shelter. The IRC is involved in the protection and monitoring of returnees, but more resources are needed.
“There’s a chronic problem of lack of housing throughout the entire country,” said Kilkenny, “But it’s especially acute in northern Iraq, where there is already an estimated 800,000 internally displaced persons.”
Khadijah’s family is one of the luckier ones. They will stay with relatives in the border town of Dyana until they are more established. Issa, Khadijah’s father, is disabled but plans to buy land and build a house for his family. And Khadijah, who has never received an education beyond primary school, hopes to resume her schooling.