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IRAQ: Ahwazi refugees overlooked by government

Hundreds of Ahwazi refugees in southern Iraq are living in deteriorating conditions, with little access to basic services such as education and healthcare, say UN officials.

According to a report released in early November by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there are some 2,500 refugees from the Iranian city of Ahwaz currently in Iraq. They are mainly concentrated in the south, in rural areas near Dujail, a majority Shi'ite city 80km south of the capital, Baghdad. [see: UNHCR Highlights Plight of Ahwazi Refugees in Iraq]

Most Ahwazi refugees sought asylum in Iraq after fleeing neighbouring Iran, where they were accused by the government of serving as Iraqi fifth columnists during the ruinous Iran-Iraq war that lasted throughout much of the 1980s.

"People just came to my house and told us that we had 24 hours to leave Ahwaz," recalled 31-year old Salah Ali, who now lives in an empty government building near Dujail.

In Iraq, however, with prevailing insecurity, conditions for the Ahwazis have worsened.

The UNHCR report highlights dismal living conditions faced by most Ahwazis, who often live in abandoned government buildings and empty schools with little or no access to potable water or electricity.

"Most Ahwazi refugees are either living in public buildings or mud houses that lack water, electricity and sewage services," the report reads. The smell of open sewage in these make-shift dwellings, the report adds, is pervasive.

The report also goes on to state that most public buildings will almost certainly be repossessed by the government in the future, and also remain at risk from mines and unexploded ordnance.

Ziad Kardash, 27, an Ahwazi who lives in an abandoned school in Dujail, said that several of his close relatives had been injured by unexploded ordinance.

"If we leave, we'll have nowhere to go, but if we stay, we could be the next victims," said Kardash.

The report also notes that the lack of healthcare has resulted in widespread malnutrition among children.

"My son is seriously sick because we don't have enough food," said Ali. "Sometimes we have to divide the same plate of rice between more than 10 people."

In an effort to prevent a further deterioration of the health situation, the Iraq Red Crescent Society (IRCS) recently announced it would form a committee to study the case of the refugees and prepare to send medical supplies.

Ahwazis, meanwhile, complain that the current Iraqi government is indifferent to their plight.

"We don't know where to go," said Kardash. "When we go to other governorates, they just tell us it's not their problem and that it is best for us to leave the country."

Government officials, however, point out the difficulties involved in offering refuge in an already poor and war-torn country.

"If we give residence permits to all of them, we'll have more foreigners in our country than Iraqis," said Maj Omar Lattif, a senior official in the department for residency claims.

"We need time to study all the cases. We can't just give residency permits to anyone who comes to our office," he added.

During the Saddam Hussein era, Ahwazi refugees were provided with homes and monthly food rations. Because of their association with the former regime, however, Ahwazis now often face discrimination and harassment.

"My boss fired me after he found out I was Ahwazi," Ali said. "He said Ahwazis don't deserve money from Iraqis because we were Saddam's helpers."

The UNHCR report notes that 80 Ahwazi families were forced out of their homes recently by supporters of the current Iraqi government.

These families, the report adds, were subsequently relocated to a transit centre on the outskirts of Basra City.

This report was written by IRINnews, a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.