In Focus: Beyond the spin about Iraqi refugees returning

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Much has been made recently of stories like this one in the Associated Press and this AP story in the International Herald Tribune, both of which seem to demonstrate that reduced violence in Baghdad and other cities is encouraging Iraqi refugees to return.

The number of Iraqis returning to their country after fleeing abroad is growing, with more than 46,000 people coming home last month, an Iraqi government spokesman said Wednesday. Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said border crossings recorded 46,030 people returning to Iraq in October alone. He attributed the large number to the “improving security situation. “The level of terrorist operations has dropped in most of the capital’s neighborhoods, due to the good performance of the armed forces,” al-Moussawi told reporters in the heavily-guarded Green Zone.

But while violence may be down, a closer look reveals several other reasons why some Iraqis may be returning to their country. Seattle Post-Inquirer columnist Larry Johnson, who has just returned from a trip to the refugee camps in Syria, reports:

…members of the group I’m with, the Seattle chapter of the United Nations Association, were somewhat shocked to read an Associated Press story on the P-I Web site that talked about large numbers of Iraqi refugees heading back to Baghdad because it has become so much safer for them. I’m certain that not one of the many officials or Iraqi refugees we’ve interviewed would agree with that. In fact, after reading that story, I asked a prominent Iraqi doctor who is a refugee if he thought it was now safe enough for many Iraqi refugees to go home. He was incredulous. He said there was a small area near Mosul where it might be safer for refugees from that area to return. But, for the most part, the only reason anyone would go back would be because they had completely run out of money here in Syria. Of course, others have to go back to renew their visas under the new laws on Iraqi refugees in Syria.

The doctor, who didn’t want his name used, said the daily violence and chaos in Iraq continues. He was anxious to go to any country that would take him. But he added something that I’ve heard often: Few countries are willing to accept Iraqi refugees.

The New York Times tells a similar story:

Long the only welcoming country in the region for Iraqi refugees, Syria has closed its borders to all but a small group of Iraqis and imposed new visa rules that will legally require the 1.5 million Iraqis currently in Syria to return to Iraq. [Emphasis added] The change quietly went into effect on Oct. 1. Syrian officials have often threatened to stem the flow of refugees over the past eight months, but until now have backed down after pleas from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For more than a year, 2,000 to 4,000 Iraqis have fled into Syria every day, according to United Nations officials. On the last four days that the border remained open, the officials said, 25,000 Iraqis crossed into Syria.

A story from the AP describes how many Iraqi refugees, unable to work in their host countries, are finding that their money is running out:

Their money gone, Iman Faleh and her family packed their belongings to reluctantly return to Baghdad — a journey they said was like going to “death row.” The religiously mixed family — Iman is a Sunni Muslim, the others are Shiite Muslims — fled their home in a mostly Shiite part of east Baghdad in July and took refuge in Syria, joining an estimated 1.5 million other Iraqis here. But in early fall, they became part of a growing wave of Iraqis leaving Syria for home, not because they are confident of Iraq’s future, but because they ran out of money.

Across the border in Lebanon, tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees are facing the prospect of arrest or deportation:

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) puts the number of Iraqi refugees in Lebanon at 50,000 people, of whom only 8,476 are registered. Another 500 are being held in prison, it says, merely for violating immigration rules… Having not signed the UN’s Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, introduced in 1951, Lebanon does not grant asylum to refugees, despite the presence on its territory of more than 400,000 Palestinians. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers – 95 percent according to UNHCR figures – are smuggled into Lebanon across the porous border with Syria. Once inside, such Iraqis have no legal status, and lacking protection under international law, are subject to detention and deportation.

And things are little better for Iraq’s internally displaced:

Scarce jobs and spiraling rents have made life even harder for displaced Iraqis and forced some women into prostitution, a migration watchdog has found. The problem has been made worse by the threat this month of a Turkish military incursion, which has swelled the numbers of Iraqis abandoning their homes in the north of the country. About 160,000 Iraqis have fled to three northern provinces since 2006, seeking shelter from sectarian violence, military operations and crime in other areas of Iraq, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Iraq mission said in a report seen by Reuters on Tuesday. The tide of displaced people has pushed up rents in northern cities like Arbil, and some have been evicted, [emphasis added] said Dana Graber, an Iraqi displacement specialist with the IOM.

Unfortunately, beyond the spin and misdirection, the immediacy of this crisis is not abating.


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