The increasing instability in Syria is leading Iraqi refugees to return home. Previously, thousands of Iraqis went to Syria to escape the growing violence in their neighborhoods. Now that trend is reversing. Exact numbers of how many have crossed the border are imprecise as of now, and there are stories spreading that Iraqis were being targeted in Syria as well. Since the situation is so fluid, none of these reports can be confirmed. What is for sure is that as the chaos spreads in Syria more Iraqis will return, but they face an uncertain future back home.
The television and newspapers have been full of reports recently about an Iraqi exodus from Syria. Iraqi Airways claimed that 10,000 people had returned from Syria to Anbar and Baghdad in July. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repeated that number as well. The main reason for their return is the increased fighting in cities like Damascus and Aleppo. A member of Iraq’s foreign affairs committee in the Iraqi parliament, and a few news stories have claimed that Iraqis are being targeted in Syria as well. One source claimed that Syrian rebels were going after Iraqis saying that they were being associated with supporters of the Syrian government. The UNHCR said that Iraqis were going after other Iraqis to settle old scores from the civil war days. A parliamentarian from the Iraqi National Movement told the press that Iraqis were being told to leave. The situation has gotten so bad in Syria that the Iraqi government has called on Iraqis to return. It has sent planes to Damascus and Aleppo to pick people up, and buses are available as well. Most Iraqis live in those two cities. When the fighting first broke out in Syria, it was away from those urban centers, so Iraqis were largely untouched. Now the rebels are directly challenging the Assad regime at its base, dragging Iraqis into the fray. There isn’t enough information available yet to determine whether Iraqis are being singled out, but the violence is spreading quickly, which poses a threat to them.
Iraqis coming back to Iraq are likely to face more hardships. In Syria, if they registered with the United Nations, they could get a monthly cash stipend. The cost of living was also cheaper there, and jobs were more plentiful. In Iraq, prices are going up, there is a severe housing shortage, and jobs are not as easily available. Baghdad has also proven not up to the task of receiving such a large influx of people in such a short period of time. This was despite the fact that back in February, the Minister of Displacement and Migration stated that his ministry was ready for any emergency regarding refugees in Syria. Not only that, but Shafaq News reported that the Defense and Interior Ministries were questioning refugees heading back to Baghdad in an attempt to weed out any Baathists that might be amongst them. That has led to a large number of refugees being held in Abu Ghraib outside the capital waiting for interrogation. Living in Syria as refugees was no easy task for many Iraqis, but it might be even more difficult going back to Iraq. While the civil war is over, there are still terrorist attacks, especially now that insurgents are launching their summer offensive. In the immediate situation, Iraqis can expect little help from the authorities adjusting to life back home. The Iraqi government is notoriously inefficient, and that makes it especially ill prepared for an emergency situation like this. In the bigger picture, former refugees might find it especially hard to live in Iraq right now. Wages have gone up, driving up costs. Unemployment and underemployment are also high, especially for the young. Workers need to get a government job to make decent wages, and those are usually only offered to followers of political parties. Since many of those returning have been out of the country for several years, they will struggle to deal with all of these issues. That’s also a reason why there are large numbers of Iraqis remaining in Syria, because they know about the hardships back home.
The number of Iraqis living in Syria is unclear. During the mid-2000s there were a reported 1.2 million refugees there, the largest amount of any nation. Today, only 87,741 Iraqis are registered with the U.N. At the same time, the UNHCR has recorded around 50,280 coming back from Syria from January 2011 to May 2012. That was a huge increase from previous years. From 2009-2010 for instance, only 29,135 returned. Obviously not all Iraqis have signed up with the United Nations, others have likely moved on to third countries. At the same time, there has been some controversy over how many Iraqi refugees there were in the first place. Whatever the true figure is, there are still plenty of Iraqis in Syria, and more of them are likely to want out as the rebels and government forces increasingly face off against each other across the country.
Syria has historically been a refuge for Iraqis. First, people wanting to get away from Saddam Hussein went there. Then, more and more Iraqis came as the insurgency turned into a civil war after the United States invasion. Now the situation has changed. Syria is in the midst of a growing civil conflict. As it reaches the major cities it will threaten more and more people, including Iraq’s refugees. Some will try to stick it out, some will go to other countries like Lebanon or Jordan, and some will go back to Iraq. Thousands have already taken the last choice, and are flowing across the border. Now they will have to start a new life back in Iraq, where there is no promise that it will be an easy one.
The following are scenes of Iraqis coming back from Syria in July 2012
Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraqis flee Syria in droves, some evacuated by air,” Associated Press, 7/20/12
Agence France Presse, “Iraqi refugees in Syria flee home from the violence,” 7/20/12
- “Iraqis back from Syria face obstacles at all turns,” 7/25/12
Alsumaria News, “Iraqi government going flights between Mosul and Aleppo and Latakia Alsorretan to transport Iraqis,” 7/24/12
Arango, Tim, “Despite Its Turmoil, Syria Still Looks Like an Oasis to Iraqis,” New York Times, 7/28/11
Brusk, Raman, “Iraq closes borders with Syria,” AK News, 7/20/12
IRIN, “IRAQ-SYRIA: Samia, “Why can’t they just take us out of here?” 4/23/12
- “SYRIA: Iraqis use Syrian conflict to settle old scores,” 7/13/12
Msarbat, Anwar, “Baghdad and Anbar register return of 10,000 Iraqis from Syria,” AK News, 7/22/12
National Iraqi News Agency, “Baghdad International Airport receive more than 1 200 Iraqi residing in Syria,” 7/20/12
- “”Iraqis forced to leave Syria”, says Mohammadi,” 5/13/12
Al-Rawi, Sarri, “Iraqi refugees in Syria blame Syrian rebels for their plight,” Azzaman, 7/21/12
Shafaq News, “Dozens of Iraqis returning from Syria to Baghdad detained in search of “Senior Baathists,”” 7/21/12
- “Source: Iraqis in Syria are being targeted under the pretext of supporting the Syrian regime,” 7/22/12
- “Source: More than 500 Iraqi families exposed to killings and kidnappings in Syria,” 7/23/12
UNHCR Iraq Operation, “Monthly Statistical Update on Return – May 2012,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, May 2012
Waleed, Khalid, “Arab Unrest Drives Iraqi Refugee Return,” Institute for War & Peace Reporting, 5/23/12
- “NIQASH interview with minister of migration: EU treats iraqi deportees ‘inhumanely,” Niqash, 2/9/12