Most Iraqi Refugees Still Unwilling to Return

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ImageMost refugees in Damascus are in desperate need of money, living on dwindling savings in a country where they are forbidden to work. Many refugees, however, are saying the money isn't worth the risk.

Iraqi refugee women in Syria

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Iraqi embassy in Damascus recently announced that it would be offering money and flights to Iraqi refugees wishing to return, but most of Syria's estimated 1 million Iraqi refugees still believe it is too risky to go home. New America Media contributor Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

New America Media – Twenty miles outside Damascus, off a street lined with olive orchards, car dealerships, and the parched, low-lying Qasyun mountain range, the UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) largest registration center in the world is relatively quiet.

Trucks offload foodstuffs into giant warehouses. Children draw and stack blocks while observers watch for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Families sit in waiting rooms and watch UNHCR videos on flat screen TVs until their number appears on digital light board.

An official at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus had told me the center would be crowded with people signing up for its new $195 million initiative to bring people home.

But today, no one I talk to seems to be considering going back any time soon. Not even for 1 million Iraqi dinars (about $850) and free plane tickets to Baghdad.

Since the Iraqi embassy announced over three weeks ago that it would be offering money and flights to any family wishing to return, only 322 of Syria's estimated 1 million refugees have been flown home. UNHCR officials say that by the beginning of last week, they had only processed a total of 245 people that would like to return, while a spokesperson at the Iraqi embassy says 2,000-3,000 are signed up to go back.

Most refugees in Damascus are in desperate need of money, living on dwindling savings in a country where they are forbidden to work. Many refugees, however, are saying the money isn't worth the risk.

"It's just a media campaign," says a man who calls himself Abu Saif as he waits for a consultation at the UNHCR registration center. "The government wants people to think they are doing a good job, but we have no reason to think the situation is safe enough to go back. It is better than it has been over the past two years, but it is still worse than it was three years ago."

Studies by Iraq Body Count, an organization that tallies reported civilian deaths, suggest that Abu Saif's concerns are warranted. Civilian casualties have decreased remarkably since early 2007, but according to their figures, more civilians are being killed from suicide attacks and vehicle bombs every day than in 2005. And the number of deaths per day from gunfire and executions are barely under their 2004 levels.

Since the initiative was announced, more Iraqis have entered Syria as refugees than those who have left on the government sponsored Iraqi Airways flights. According to a UNHCR report, around 400 people have taken refuge in Syria in the past week alone, fleeing sectarian militias in Mosul.

I asked Iraq embassy spokesman Ahmed Saad whether it was safe to repatriate refugees, while 13,000 people flee sectarian violence in the northern Iraqi city.

"The situation is safe," he replied. "The Iraqi army is taking control of Iraqi security. The media is always talking about explosions and IEDs, but the situation has greatly improved. Even the Americans are saying that."

UNHCR disagrees. While they are offering up to $500 in additional assistance for returning refugees, the international agency insists that the situation is not appropriate for repatriation.

"We are not promoting or encouraging Iraqis to return," says UNHCR public information assistant in Damascus, Dalia Al-Achi. "Our own staff in Baghdad cannot move freely, so how could we encourage people to go there?"

Al-Achi says that even though violence has declined in Iraq overall, roughly the same number of Iraqis enter Syria every day as those that leave, though she says it is difficult to know whether those crossing the borders are relocating permanently.

Last November, aid workers criticized the Iraqi government for offering refugees free trips in convoys from Damascus to Baghdad. At that time, the number of refugees entering Syria was considerably higher than those leaving, and many returned to find their homes occupied by other families.

This time things are different, an embassy official tells me. "Now we will continue to bring people back for six months if we need to – as long as it takes," says the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because she was not authorized to speak to the media. This time, she says, the government is trying as hard as it can to make sure people have a home to return to, promising to pay six months' rent – up to $300 per month – to families willing to leave houses that aren't theirs.

"The Iraqi government would like its people to return to participate in the reconstruction of Iraq," she says.

Nearby, a buzzing market where robed men sip tiny glasses of tea and black-clad women barter over towels and framed paintings of the Shia martyr Imam Hussain (peace be upon h im), young men in jeans and stocking caps shoot pool and talk about going home.

"I'm going back in four days," says one, who asked not to be named to protect his safety, as he scours the table for a shot. He says his family will be riding a bus, and they won't take the government's $850.

"If we take the money, we can't come back here," he says. "We won't even be considered refugees anymore. We want to try going back to Baghdad, but we won't give up our chance to return to Syria if it is too dangerous."

In exchange for the money and flight, Iraqis are required to give up their Syrian residency permits as well as their refugee status with the UN.

Down the street, under the golden dome of the revered Sayida Zainab (peace be upon her) shrine, Dayyaa Adib, once a government employee in Baghdad, now sells caps and wristbands emblazoned with the Iraqi flag, from a metal cart.

He says the money the government is offering a refugee isn't enough to pay his way through what he says is an extremely corrupt job market. "I want to go back, but it will cost me $1,000 just to get a job in Baghdad," he says.

Iraq was ranked the most corrupt country in the Arab world in the international watchdog Transparency International's 2008 corruption perception index.

"Everyone in Iraq knows that you need to pay bribes to get government jobs. That is how it was under Saddam and that is how it is now."

Back at the UNHCR office in downtown Damascus, Maruj Najeeb, an Iraqi Christian, says she needs to go somewhere because her family is out of money and they need to find work.

As she gazes vacantly at the throngs of refugees lined up at the door, she looks defeated and hopeless. "There is no solution for us," she says.

Four years ago, militias kidnapped her son and blew up her house in Mosul. Now her husband, once an electrician for the coalition forces, returns to find work whenever they need money.

"Usually, he can't stay for more than one or two months because he gets threatened by militias," she says. "How can the government expect us to live there?"

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