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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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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