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Poor conditions in Iraq drive returned refugees back to Syria

News Stories, 22 December 2009

© UNHCR
An unidentified Iraqi family at a Syrian immigration post on the border with Iraq.

DAMASCUS, Syria, December 21 (UNHCR) Omar Salman's* Syrian visa expired two weeks ago. A refugee from neighbouring Iraq, he believes his family's residency permits will not be renewed but says that returning to Iraq is not an option.

Travelling to Jordan, which also hosts a significant number of Iraqi refugees, is also not possible. After overstaying his visa in 2006, he has been barred from entering the country for another five years.

"I'll pitch a tent on the border if they won't let me stay, but I will never return to Iraq," he says, surrounded by his wife Shahla* and three children.

The Salmans have already made one attempt to return home. In October 2008, they boarded an Iraqi government chartered flight alongside some 50 other families bound for Baghdad.

"I expected when I returned to Iraq that I would be able to at least build a small house for my children, 50 square metres. So that when I die they'll be able to say: bless our father, he left us this room," says Omar.

But that didn't happen. The $150 travel assistance received from UNHCR only covered half of their taxi fare to their parents' house in Abou Ghraib, a city west of Baghdad. Omar got occasional low wage work as a blacksmith, his wife, a Shia, says she was constantly harassed by residents in their majority-Sunni neighbourhood. His children were too afraid of kidnappings to go to school, and he was detained for 45 days after an attack occurred on a vehicle in his area.

"The Iraqi Government had placed huge advertisements around our neighbourhood in Damascus encouraging refugees to return. They promised returnees cash grants and help finding employment. We were destitute in Syria and we hoped the assistance would help us rebuild our lives back home. When we arrived in Iraq, none of that materialised," says Shahla.

When Omar went to collect the US$ 1,000 he had been promised by Iraqi officials, he was turned away and told that because he and his family had left Iraq in 2005, before the outbreak of sectarian violence, they did not qualify for return assistance.

The Salmans were displaced from Kirkuk in 2003. They lived in a bombed out building without doors or windows and then in a makeshift camp in Diyala with no running water or electricity for almost two years before leaving the country. In Jordan their status was illegal, and in Syria they could barely make ends meet.

Now, with the renewal of their residency permits uncertain, they may be forced to leave Syria. The family says they will stay were they are.

"We are tired, tired of running," says Omar.

In view of the ongoing violence, serious human rights violations and continuing security incidents, primarily in the five central Governorates of Iraq, UNHCR does not consider that conditions are appropriate for the large-scale return of refugees to those areas.

According to a recent UNHCR returns monitoring survey, the main concerns of refugees upon return to Iraq are general insecurity, insufficient public services, and lack of employment opportunities.

The office of UNHCR in Baghdad is aware of 32,550 refugees who, as of October 31 of this year, had returned to Iraq. This represents a slight increase over 2008, when 25,370 individuals repatriated.

* Names have been changed

By Farah Dakhlallah in Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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