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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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

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