Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How Many Refugees Are Returning From Syria, And What Will Be Their Fate In Iraq?

The growing conflict in Syria is leading to more and more Iraqi refugees who reside there to make the decision to return home. Iraqi officials have claimed that thousands and thousands of people are making the trek back to Iraq. Those remarks do not always match the official numbers collected by the United Nations so far. What awaits these returnees is also an open question. Will they be able to find jobs and houses is only part of it, there’s also the issue of how the government will receive them. Overall, they are likely to struggle as they attempt to restart their lives in Iraq.
Iraqis returning from Syria on bus unload their things Aug. 2012
There have been various stories about a huge increase in the number of Iraqi refugees coming back from Syria recently, but they do not quite jive with statistics collected by the United Nations. At the beginning of August 2012 for instance, the Displacement and Migration Ministry claimed that around 20,000 people had come back to Iraq in just the last few months. That included 15,000 in just nine days at the end of July, according to the deputy minister. 4,000 of those were flown back on special flights set up by Baghdad, while the rest crossed back by land. That same month, Iraqi Airways told the press that 2,673 people had gone back to Baghdad from Syria, and around 8,000 went to Anbar. The United Nations recorded a large number of returnees as well, but not as many as reported in the press. From January to July for example, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had 43,950 people coming back to Iraq from Syria. Its numbers supported the 20,000 figure made by the Displacement Ministry for the last several months as it claimed 22,010 came back from April to July. Where it differed was in the huge influx in recent months. For instance, it only had 4,300 people for all of July, only a fraction of the 15,000 mentioned by the Deputy Displacement Minister for nine days of that month. The UNHCR numbers are nowhere near definitive, and could be revised in the future, but according to it, the number of Iraqis coming back has actually slowed down in the last few months, not picked up as the press has reported. The situation is definitely in flux, so the actual number of people making the decision to return may only be clarified later on.

UNHCR Refugee Returns From Syria 2012
January 7,440
February 7,910
March 6,590
April 8,330
May 6,370
June 3,010
July 4,300

The problem isn’t in the statistics, but what will happen now that all these people are back in the country. First, the government has offered cash assistance to returnees for several years now. In September, Baghdad announced that it was setting aside $50 million to help refugees coming back from Syria. It said it would give around $4,000 to each family that returned. The problem is that the notorious bureaucracy has often slowed up these payments, and the recent increase will only make that situation worse. Second, a UNHCR spokesman said that most of these people are coming back with little in terms of possessions and money. They are returning to a country where prices are rising, housing is in limited supply, and services are bad. Not only that, but there have been reports that the government has set up a holding area in Abu Ghraib to interrogate people heading for Baghdad. Supposedly, it is under the control of the Baghdad Operations Command, and it is checking people for Baathist ties. This is causing some trepidation amongst refugees still in Syria as a parliamentarian reported that they were afraid of being interrogated by the authorities if they went back. When looking at all the possible obstacles that might be in front of them, the questioning seems to be the least of their worries. Many refugees have said that it was easy to find work and accommodation in Syria. They have now lost that due to the rising violence there, and are going to be living in an Iraq where both of those necessities are scarce. That means they may well end up living with and off of family and friends for quite some time, and find a hard time adjusting.

Since 2011, there have been a large number of refugees making it back to Iraq. This was before the conflict in Syria even started. Now the fighting there is giving an added incentive to people to return. This will likely lead to added pressure upon the government that seems unable to deal with the increase. More importantly, many of these returnees seem to be heading towards a long period of struggle trying to find housing and employment, and dealing with the general high cost of living in Iraq compared to Syria. Their new life in Iraq therefore, may not be all that they were hoping for.


Agence France Presse, “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

IRIN, “IRAQ: Returnees from Syria – a “humanitarian crisis” in the making,” 7/27/12

Mohammed, Fryad, “20,000 Iraqis return home from Syria,” AK News, 8/4/12

Msarbat, Anwar, “Baghdad and Anbar register return of 10,000 Iraqis from Syria,” AK News, 7/22/12

Sami, Zeena, “$50 million for Iraqi refugees fleeing Syria,” Azzaman, 9/3/12
- “Iraqi exiles in Syria fear for their lives but are afraid to return home,” Azzaman, 9/22/12

Shafaq News, “Dozens of Iraqis returning from Syria to Baghdad detained in search of “Senior Baathists,”” 7/21/12

UNHCR Iraq Operation, “Monthly Statistical Update on Return – July 2012,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, August 2012

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