UNHCR says time not right for large-scale Iraq repatriation
GENEVA, November 23 (UNHCR) - Amid media reports that thousands of refugees are going back to Iraq, the UN refugee agency said on Friday that while improved security conditions were welcome it was not yet time to promote, organize or encourage returns.
Spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told journalists in Geneva that UNHCR was ready to assist people who have decided, or will decide, to return to Iraq voluntarily, but the agency believed that large-scale repatriation would only be possible "when proper return conditions are in place - including material and legal support and physical safety."
She added that "presently, there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable. "
According to a survey conducted by UNHCR staff in Syria, there are many reasons for returns to Iraq other than considerations of improved security. Most of some 110 Iraqi families interviewed said they were returning because they were running out of money and/or resources, they faced difficult living conditions or because their visas have expired.
As a result of recent visa restrictions, a number of Iraqis have been unable to shuttle back and forth between Iraq and Syria to get additional resources, make some money or collect food distributions or pensions.
The incentives offered by the Iraqi government of some US$700-US$800 to return home, as well as free bus and plane rides, have also played a role in returns. The survey also highlighted that this was the first time in recent years that Iraqi refugees were discussing return.
Pagonis said UNHCR staff also did quick interviews with returnees in Baghdad, who cited economic difficulties caused by their long displacement as a major reason for going home. Many had run out of or nearly depleted their savings. Some returned as it was the last chance to get their children back into Iraqi schools before the end of the first term.
Some were encouraged by the reports regarding improvement of security, but many expressed concern about longer-term stability, citing the fact that militias were still around and many areas remained insecure. People have mainly been returning to areas where they feel that local security forces are working properly and are maintaining control.
"Although we are not in a position to monitor borders on a 24-hour basis, we have noted more returns to Iraq than arrivals in Syria - with a fluctuating average of 1,500 departures to Iraq and 500 arrivals in Syria per day. We cannot confirm reports that 46,000 Iraqis returned from Syria in October," Pagonis said.
Inside Iraq, the number of internally displaced people increased slightly over the last few months. According to the latest figures received by UNHCR, it is estimated that as of Wednesday more than 2.4 million Iraqis were displaced inside Iraq. The breakdown is: 1,021,962 displaced prior to 2003; 190,146 displaced from 2003-2005; and 1,199,491 displaced since the first Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006.
Pagonis said reasons for the increase included better registration of the displaced, but also recent visa restrictions in Syria, which meant more people moved within Iraq rather than seeking refuge outside. There has also been more secondary displacement as governorates close their doors to the newly displaced from elsewhere - 11 out of Iraq's 18 governorates have limited access to new arrivals.
Still, there have been some returns among displaced people. Various families received financial incentives to return. UNHCR has received reports of families who returned to very difficult conditions while others did not return to their original homes, but settled elsewhere (secondary displacement). Displaced Iraqis say access to shelter, food, work, water/sanitation and legal aid remain the most common needs.
According to government estimates, some 2.2 million Iraqis live outside Iraq - with some 500,000-700.000 in Jordan and up to 1.5 million in Syria.