The Iraqi government is continuing with its policy of encouraging refugees to return from abroad. On October 14, 2008 140 Iraqi families arrived from Syria on a trip organized by Baghdad. They joined 58 families that came back the week before from Jordan, facilitated by the Iraqi embassy there. They are coming at a time when more Iraqis are trying to get back for a variety of reasons. They still constitute only a small portion of the nearly 5 million Iraqis that have been displaced however.
The government has been telling refugees to return home since the end of the summer. In August, 2008, two groups of refugees from Egypt came back to Iraq on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s personal jet. Those were the first returns paid for and organized by Baghdad. This was part of Maliki’s $85 million displaced program announced the same month. In late September, the Iraqi embassy in Amman, Jordan announced that it too would be helping Iraqi refugees in that country return by plane. Those started the next month, and have reached a total of 116 families. In Damascus, Syria, the Iraqi embassy there said they were offering free bus and plane rides back to Iraq in October. The first jet arrived in the second week of that month with 140 families. The government said all of the families were eligible for $850 from the government for coming back, plus $145 for the next six months to help with expenses. A September 2008 survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration of 2,102 returning families, found that of the 1,043 that applied for these government payments, only 311 (14.7%) had received any money. Maliki’s office is also promising them their homes and jobs, something that will be hard to provide with underemployment and unemployment ranging anywhere from 20-60%.
This summer did see an increase in Iraqis coming home, but it is still only a small fraction of the total number of refugees. In June 2008 16,338 refugees returned, 20,546 in July, peaking in August at 37,835, and then falling back to 23,821 in September. According to the United Nations, this is an increase from the monthly average coming back from August 2007 to June 2008, which was 11,000. The IOM-Iraqi Displacement and Migration Ministry poll found that 38.58% said they were returning because of improved security. 36.39% stated they were motivated by both better conditions and hardships. It is still not clear whether more Iraqis are coming back or leaving. Either way, the IOM estimates that only 8% of Iraqi refugees have gone back to their homes. These returnees face sporadic attacks, but more importantly lack employment, food, and basic services.
The country still has a long way to go before it can claim light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the refugee problem. Unfortunately the process has been politicized by Prime Minister Maliki to improve the country and his government’s image. He is pushing for Iraqis to return whether conditions are right or not or whether the authorities can assist them. A member of the Displaced and Migration committee in parliament claimed that the Prime Minister wants to be done with the matter by the end of 2008, highlighting the lack of any long-term planning to help the displaced. It will take a lot longer than that to cure the plight of almost five million refugees.
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