Saturday, July 26, 2008

Enticing Iraqi Refugees To Return

In the past, Iraq has been widely criticized for not trying to help its displaced citizens. Currently, the country has one of the worst refugee problems in the world. The United Nations claims that 4.2 million Iraqis have left their homes since the U.S. invasion. 2.2 million live in other countries, while the other 2 million are internally displaced. With Iraq’s coffers overflowing with oil money, it is finally trying to entice these people to return to their homes. This will not be an easy job, and it’s still an open question whether Iraq can actually come through with its promises.

In the summer of 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government announced that the return of Iraq’s refugees was an integral part of its Baghdad security plan. At the beginning of June, it was announced that the cabinet had agreed to spend $195 million to help refugees return home from other countries. That same month, Iraq gave $8 million to the United Nations to help with the education and health of Iraqis in other nations. It was also announced that displaced families that were squatting in government buildings and other people’s homes were going to be asked to leave their residences, and if they didn’t, they would be forcibly removed. On July 16 for example, squatters in two Baghdad neighborhoods, Al Jamia and Al Adel, were told they had three days to vacate. Also in July, Baghdad announced that it had set up a $83 million program to help the internally displaced. Finally, the government came out with a detailed plan on July 23. The basic idea is to offer cash rewards to families that either leave homes they’re squatting in, or that return to their original domiciles. Baghdad is offering 1.8 million dinars (approximately $1,500) for squatters to leave, one million dinars (around $840) to refugees to return home, 150,000 dinars ($145) for three months to the internally displaced, and free airplane tickets and shipping for refugees to come back from foreign countries.

Offering aid is the first step in any serious plan, but taking care of the refugees once they come back is the next problematic issue. Millions of Iraqis have been forced to leave. Many of the 2 million internal refugees do not live in camps, but rather rented new places, moved in with relatives, or squatted in homes vacated by other people displaced. Taking care of squatters is one of the most explosives issues. Some may have to be actually forced out. That could lead to trouble. Even if they take the government’s money to leave, they may not be able to find a new place, and become refugees all over again. Most of Iraq’s displaced also came from Baghdad, and were ethnically cleansed during the sectarian war period. While some neighborhoods will accept families back, others may not. In late June for example, a group of Shiites protested in central Baghdad claiming that a local Sons of Iraq unit in Adil had prevented them from returning to their homes. Another major issue is whether the government can fulfill its promises. Iraq definitely has the money now, but actually distributing it effectively will be a major challenge. During the summer the head of parliament’s Displacement and Migration Committee complained that the government hadn’t come through with any money and wasn’t listening to their pleas. At the same time, there are signs of hope. The Immigration Ministry announced that 6,293 families had returned to Baghdad on June 18. 5,252 of them had received the government’s promise of money, while 1,041 were still waiting. The International Organization for Migration also reported that the number of displaced has slowed in 2008. With security improving, it’s a priority of the government to begin taking care of its people and solving the other problems created by the years of fighting. Taking care of the country’s refugees is one of these.

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Iraq gives UN $8 mln to help refugees in Jordan,” 6/15/08

Alsumaria, “150 Iraqi families return to Al Dora region,” 7/11/08
- “Iraq gives 3 day deadline to evacuate displaced houses,” 7/16/08
- “Iraq Government to improve displaced status,” 7/10/08

Associated Press, “Group says displacement of Iraqis has slowed,” 7/18/08

Buzbee, Sally and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraq handing out cash to people on the streets,” Associated Press, 7/12/08

Hendawi, Hamza, “Program in Iraq against al-Qaida faces uncertainty,” Associated Press, 6/29/08

IRIN, “Internally displaced Iraqis demand government return them home,” 6/16/08
- “Iraq announces incentives to encourage return of IDPs, refugees,” 7/23/08

Multi-National Force-Iraq, “Operational Update: Rear Adm. Driscoll, Maj. Gen. Atta,” 6/22/08

Rubin, Alissa, “Iraqi Shiies Reclaim a Village Razed by Sunnis,” New York Times, 7/12/08

Al-Sabaah, “Over 6000 Families Return Back Homes,” 6/18/08

Voices of Iraq, “$195 millino allocated for refugees’ return – MP,” 6/3/08
- “MP criticizes govt. on displaced measures,” 6/1/08

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