Iraq government busses refugees home from Syria
DAMASCUS, Syria, November 28 (UNHCR) - A convoy of buses carrying an estimated 800 Iraqis has left the Syrian capital of Damascus and crossed the border on its way to Baghdad. Iraqi government officials at the Tuesday afternoon departure here said air and land security would be provided all the way to the beleaguered Iraqi capital.
UNHCR staff at the Al Tanf border point saw at least 15 buses, each carrying 30-35 people, pass through Iraq immigration later Tuesday and said they had heard that others had arrived earlier. The convoy was expected to arrive in Baghdad on Wednesday. UNHCR planned to give the refugees a return package.
UNHCR protection officers interviewed many of the returnee families boarding buses in Damascus and most said they were going back to Iraq because they had run out of money and could no longer afford to stay in Syria, which is hosting more than 1.4 million Iraqi refugees. Some said they wanted to check out the situation in Iraq amid reports of improved security across the border.
The refugees were also taking back their possessions, ranging from clothes to fridges. But, while a group of Iraqi men proudly waved off the buses with Iraqi flags, many of those on the convoy appeared subdued and seemed anxious as they prepared to load their bags onto the coaches.
Iraq's Ministry of Transport funded the convoy and Iraqi officials said it was made possible by improved security in Baghdad and its environs in recent weeks, which they attributed to the build-up, or "surge," of United States military forces.
"The convoy is an invitation from the Iraqi Prime Minister [Nouri al-Maliki] to refugees to come home because the security situation is better," said Hassan Abd Al Azeez, chargé d'affaires at the Iraqi embassy in Syria.
Some of the refugees heading back to Iraq said they were convinced that it was now safer. "I want to leave because the security situation in Iraq is much better and the atmosphere is less dangerous," Abu Ali, a refugee from Baghdad, said as he waited to board a bus with his three children.
But many of the refugees said financial considerations, rather than security concerns, were the deciding factor in their decision to return. "The money is finished and my visa has expired," said Ahmed Hussein from Baghdad's Sadr City district. "Of course I want to stay here, but I can't," he said.
Figures compiled by UNHCR suggest that only 14 percent of Iraqi refugees are returning because of improved security conditions. Around 70 percent say they are leaving because of tougher visa regulations and because they are not allowed to work and can no longer afford to stay in Syria.
Posters announcing the return convoys were displayed mainly in the Damascus neighbourhood of Seida Zeinab, where an estimated 350,000 Iraqi refugees live. The UN refugee agency has not been assisting in the operation and remains concerned about the situation in Iraq.
"For the first time some Iraqi refugees are considering returning to Iraq," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR representative in Syria, before adding: "UNHCR is not in a position to recommend return at this time but recognizes the Iraq government's effort to support people who are returning."
During the past week, the UNHCR estimates that around 600 Iraqis have left Syria each day this week, although not all are refugees. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, says that 45,000 Iraqis have returned from Syria in October.
UNHCR will continue to help many of those remaining in Syria. The refugee agency will next month provide around 7,000 families with financial support and distribute food for some 51,000 people. UNHCR also provides subsidized health care to Iraq refugees who seek it.