UNHCR poll: Iraqi refugees reluctant to return to Iraq permanently

Briefing Notes, 8 October 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 8 October 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

A recent UNHCR survey of Iraqi refugees living in Syria has found that most are still reluctant to return home on a permanent basis.

The survey was carried out at the Al Waleed border crossing between Syria and Iraq, in July and August. Of 498 families, representing more than 2000 individuals, 46 percent cited political uncertainty, while 15 percent blamed unstable security conditions. A further 13 percent said they are holding back because of poor educational opportunities, and six percent cited housing shortages.

Most people crossing the border 89 percent said it was for a short trip only. In 42 percent of cases this was for visiting family members, 18 percent said they were checking conditions on the ground, 15 percent to obtain documentation, and 10 percent to check on property.

A similar survey on the Iraq-Jordan border among some 364 families (representing approximately 1450 individuals) found that none were returning to Iraq permanently. Similar reasons were cited.

Syria hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the region. Since the start of the war in Iraq, UNHCR Syria has registered over 290,000 Iraqis. Some have since been officially resettled, others departed to third countries by other means; some have decided to return to Iraq, most of them spontaneously and, in few cases, with limited assistance from UNHCR. Most, however, remain in Syria. As of end of August 2010, the population of Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR stands at 153,042.

Demand for registration by Iraqi refugees in Syria has increased during the past 5 months, with an average of 1,900 people requesting registration appointments every month since the beginning of the year.

Since May, this figure has risen dramatically to a peak of 3,500 in August. The majority of Iraqis requesting registration came from Baghdad and Ninewa Governorates, recognized as being particularly dangerous in UNHCR guidelines.

Syria has been a generous host to Iraqi refugees. Over 70% (or 110,000) of the Iraqi refugees currently registered in Syria have lived there for over four years. Although many Iraqi refugees left Iraq with some savings, after years of exile, these savings have run out. As a result, refugees rely on food and financial assistance from UNHCR to sustain themselves and their families.

Approximately 41% of all registered Iraqis in Syria are considered "vulnerable" and in need of assistance. 34,000 suffer serious medical conditions while 9,000 or 9% of the refugee population are classified as 'women at risk'.

UNHCR does not consider the security situation in Iraq adequate to facilitate or promote returns. We nonetheless continue to assist refugees who voluntarily express their wish to return, in close coordination with the Iraqi authorities.

The number of refugees who return permanently to Iraq has been very low with UNHCR having supported 163 to return to Iraq from Syria since the beginning of 2010. According to Iraqi government statistics, only 18,240 Iraqi refugees returned from exile from January 2010 to August. This represents 20 percent of the total returns of 89,700 in the same period, including internally displaced persons.

The on-going violence in Iraq has resulted in large scale internal and external displacement of the Iraqi population. Over 1.5 million people remain displaced within the country while hundreds of thousands of people are still living as refugees in neighbouring countries, mainly in Syria and Jordan.

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Thousands of desperate Syrian refugees seek safety in Turkey after outbreak of fresh fighting

Renewed fighting in northern Syria since June 3 has sent a further 23,135 refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey's southern Sanliurfa province. Some 70 per cent of these are women and children, according to information received by UNHCR this week.

Most of the new arrivals are Syrians escaping fighting between rival military forces in and around the key border town of Tel Abyad, which faces Akcakale across the border. They join some 1.77 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey.

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According to UNHCR field staff most of the refugees are exhausted and arrive carrying just a few belongings. Some have walked for days. In recent days, people have fled directly to Akcakale to escape fighting in Tel Abyad which is currently reported to be calm.

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Jolie spoke to people with dramatic stories of escape, including some who walked through the night and hid by day on their road freedom. She also met women who were among the 196 ethnic Yazidis recently released by militants and now staying in the informal settlement at Khanke.

"It is shocking to see how the humanitarian situation in Iraq has deteriorated since my last visit," said Jolie. "On top of large numbers of Syrian refugees, 2 million Iraqis were displaced by violence in 2014 alone. Many of these innocent people have been uprooted multiple times as they seek safety amidst shifting frontlines."

Photos by UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

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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.

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