Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Déjà Vu? Government Returns Refugees

Iraqi refugees returning home on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private airplane in August 2008

On August 11 and 18 several hundred Iraqi refugees disembarked from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s private jet that had been sent to Egypt to take them back to Iraq. These were the first such flights under the government’s new refugee policy that was announced this summer that offers free plane rides to any refugees that wish to return home. Iraqi officials said another flight is planned for later this week, and that they would continue for the next nine weeks. A spokesman said that eventually there could be up to two flights a week shuttling refugees back from throughout the Middle East. The August 11 group consisted of 236 people, comprising 52 families. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Displacement and Migration, the Baghdad Operations Commander, as well as the head of the Baghdad provincial council were there to greet them, and the whole event was televised. The officials said they would help the returnees get their homes back and find them jobs, and that the government hoped to return all of Iraq’s refugees.

The events seemed like an exact replay of when Baghdad offered free bus rides and money for Iraqi refugees to return from Syria in November 2007. Then, the government claimed that security had improved to the point that tens of thousands of Iraq’s refugees were returning. They set up a special bus ride from Syria to Baghdad, and offered each returnee $800 if they came back. TV ads were run in Syria to encourage their return as well. At the end of the month, the first buses arrived in Baghdad to much fanfare and media coverage. The government claimed that 800 Iraqis took up the offer. After only two runs the program was ended however. By December, the government admitted that it couldn’t take care of any returning refugees and told them to stay put. The United Nations reported that only 1/3 of the families that took the buses were able to go back to their homes. The rest joined the ranks of Iraq’s internally displaced. That was because the government had no programs to help them once they returned, and the burden of caring for them fell to the U.S. military. The New York Times also found that the government’s numbers for Iraqis coming back were exaggerated. Officials were counting every Iraqi that crossed the border whether they were a refugee or not.

In the November 2007 and August 2008 cases, Maliki was attempting to exploit the refugees for his own gain. Then and now, the Prime Minister claimed that it was safe for Iraqis to come back home to improve Baghdad’s image. In both situations international organizations warned the government that it wasn’t time for refugees to return. This month for example, a group of over one hundred non-government organizations inside and out of Iraq called on the government not to encourage refugees to come back. Refugee groups have also found that most Iraqis, like those that took the buses from Syria and the flights from Egypt, are coming back because they have run out of money, and are facing growing restrictions and resentment against them in their host countries, rather than improved security. In 2007 and 2008 Baghdad also offered money to those that took the journey back, but little else. There are no plans to solve property disputes with squatters, there is no housing for those that can’t go back to their original residences, etc. There are too many uncertainties for many to come back, which is probably why only a small fraction of Iraq’s four million plus refugees have taken up the government’s offer so far.


Afrique en ligne, “Iraqi refugees begin return from Egypt,” 8/18/08

Allam, Hannah, “Baghdad may be safer, but few Iraqis in Syria risk returning,” McClatchy Newspapers, 12/5/07
- “Survey: Many Iraqis in Syria fled during U.S. troop buildup,” McClatchy Newspapers, 12/14/07

Alsumaria, “Iraqi refugees return home from Egypt,” 8/18/08
- “Tens of Iraqi displaced families return home,” 8/12/08

Barnes-Dacey, Julien and Dagher, Sam, “Returning from Syria, Iraqis question safety,” Christian Science Monitor, 11/28/07

Buckley, Cara, “Refugees Risk Coming Home to an Unready Iraq,” New York Times, 12/20/07

Cave, Damien, “Pressure for Results: The Politics of Tallying the Number of Iraqis Who Return Home,” New York Times, 11/26/07

DeYoung, Karen, “Balkanized Homecoming,” Washington Post, 12/16/07

Gordon, Michael and Farrell, Stephen, “Iraq Lacks Plan on the Return of Refugees, Military Says,” New York Times, 11/30/07

International Crisis Group, “Failed Responsibility: Iraqi Refugees In Syria, Jordan and Lebanon,” 7/10/08

IRIN, “Group of NGOs warn against ‘premature’ refugee return,” 8/12/08
- “NGOs urge action on displacement crisis,” 8/13/08

Jordans, Frank, “UNHCR: Many Iraq Areas Unsafe for Return,” Associated Press, 12/7/07

Kaplow, Larry, Nordland, Rod, and Spring, Silvia, “There’s No Place Like … Iraq?” Newsweek, 11/24/07

Paley, Amit, “Iraq Urges Refugees To Stay Put,” Washington Post, 12/5/07

Sinan, Omar and Yacoub, Sameer, “Iraqi leader gives refugees free flight home,” Associated Press, 8/11/08

Youssef, Nancy, “Baghdad refugees happy to be home again,” McClatchy Newspapers, 11/20/07


badger said...

Excellent post, putting the latest example of this in context. (AlHayat and I think other papers too have noted that a lot of the houses in question are occupied by people who were themselves displaced from their original homes, so this would see them turfed out for a second time, this time by the government...)

Joel Wing said...

When I read the 2 Alsumaria reports on the plane trips and saw the pictures I immediately thought of the Syrian bus rides in 07. Then the government had nothing else, this time they actually have an entire refugee plan, but it's just about handing out money and forcing out squatters. There's no guarantee that people can even get the money because of the bureaucracy and almost everyone has criticized the plan.

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