• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

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

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

When bombs started raining down on Aleppo, Syria, in 2012, the Khawan family had to flee. According to Ahmad, the husband of Najwa and father of their two children, the town was in ruins within 24 hours.

The family fled to Lebanon where they shared a small flat with Ahmad's two brothers and sisters and their children. Ahmad found sporadic work which kept them going, but he knew that in Lebanon his six-year-old son, Abdu, who was born deaf, would have little chance for help.

The family was accepted by Germany's Humanitarian Assistance Programme and resettled into the small central German town of Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. Nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges and a forest, the village has an idyllic feel.

A year on, Abdu has undergone cochlear implant surgery for the second time. He now sports two new hearing aids which, when worn together, allow him to hear 90 per cent. He has also joined a regular nursery class, where he is learning for the first time to speak - German in school and now Arabic at home. Ahmed is likewise studying German in a nearby village, and in two months he will graduate with a language certificate and start looking for work. He says that he is proud at how quickly Abdu is learning and integrating.

Abdu finds his voice in Germany

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

Responding to Syria's Tragedy Play video

Responding to Syria's Tragedy

As Syria's war heads towards a fifth year, the United Nations and partners today launched a major new humanitarian and development appeal, requesting over US$8.4 billion in funds to help nearly 18 million people in Syria and across the region in 2015
Iraq: The Plight of the YazidisPlay video

Iraq: The Plight of the Yazidis

Tens of thousands of people, including ethnic Yazidis originating from the Sinjar area, have been forced to find shelter in schools and unfinished structures across northern Iraq since fleeing their homes. The UN refugee agency has been trying to help, opening camps to provide better shelter.
Iraq: Preparing for Winter in DohukPlay video

Iraq: Preparing for Winter in Dohuk

Efforts are under way in Syria, Iraq and neighbouring countries to prepare refugees and the internally displaced for winter. But UNHCR remains deeply concerned that a $58.45 million funding shortfall could leave as many as a million people out in the cold.