Arab Unrest drives Iraqi refugee return

from Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Published on 23 May 2012 View Original

Government says its resettlement programme has boosted numbers, though main driver seems to be fear of violence in host states.

By Khalid Waleed - Iraq
ICR Issue 392, 23 May 12

The wave of revolutions that has swept the Middle East and North Africa over the last year has driven large numbers of Iraqi refugees to go home, despite their reluctance to return to a still unstable country.

Most of the estimated 2.3 million refugees fled the sectarian violence that erupted in the country after Saddam Hussein was overthrown in the United States-led offensive of 2003. The bloodshed peaked with clashes between Shia and Sunni Arabs in 2006-07. Others left the country while Saddam was still presiding over three decades of repressive rule.

The Iraqi government launched a programme in 2007 to encourage people to come back, but until recently, relatively few had taken up the offer. They were deterred by the continuing violence in Iraq, and by the high unemployment and minimal social services there.

Now, however, officials in charge of immigration and refugee issues have told IWPR they are seeing a marked increase in the numbers opting to return, and they say most are coming from those Arab countries that have experienced unrest over the last year.

"There has been an increase in the number of Iraqis returning from Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, even from Tunisia," Dindar Najman, Iraq’s minister for migration and displacement, said. "More and more Iraqis are coming every day from countries where the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ have either taken place or are ongoing".

Najman said that while his ministry did not possess statistics on the number of Iraqis who had come back since the beginning of 2011, he estimated that the numbers ran into tens of thousands.

Correspondingly, he said, the number of Iraqi nationals in other Arab states who were registered as asylum-seekers or refugees with the UN refugee agency UNHCR had fallen. (See Iraqi Refugees in Syria Fear For Future.)

"These figures are continuing on a downward trend as the returns increase month by month," Najman said.

Pro-democracy rebellions erupted across the Middle East and North Africa from early 2011 onwards, inspired initially by a young Tunisian who set himself on fire in a protest against the government. The heads of state of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya have been ousted, while unrest continues in Syria and Bahrain.

The violence and general instability has forced many Iraqis to consider whether they might be safer in their own country.

"Iraq is not yet a safe country, but it will be better to be living at home when everywhere else is unsafe,” Zainab Fadhel, a 32-year-old mother of two who has just returned from Syria, told IWPR. “This is not our war; we don’t need to be involved.”

"I fled from fighting when it erupted in my own country, and I will flee it when it breaks out somewhere," she added.

Abu Hanan, 41 and a father of four, came back from Egypt several months ago, and told IWPR that he was alarmed by the disorder that followed the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.

"The chaos spread everywhere,” he said. “I was worried about my daughters, so I opted to be back home facing violence rather than undergoing the risk that my daughters might be kidnapped and probably raped."

Abu Hanan, a Sunni resident of eastern Baghdad who emigrated five years ago as Shia militias took control of his neighbourhood, said his decision to return was not made in the belief that the security situation had improved.

"It’s still dangerous – a bomb might go off at any time, anywhere," he said.

For other refugees, though, fears of violence in Iraq – especially since the withdrawal of United States troops in December and an escalation in attacks on civilians – remain a powerful deterrent.

"It’s violent here and it’s violent there," Safaa Aziz, young Iraqi living in Syria, told IWPR by phone. "But at least I’ve got a business here. What would I do if I went back to Iraq? Be unemployed?"

Ali al-Mosawi, an advisor to Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, set out the measures the government had put in place to help people resettle and rebuild their lives.

"We have given each returning family a grant of four million Iraqi dinars [around 3,400 US dollars], and we’ve also allowed their sons and daughters to enroll in Iraqi universities and schools without submitting any documentation,” he said.

Mosawi suggested that the rising number of returns was due to the government’s assistance programme as well as to “recent developments in the region".

Experts on the Iraqi exodus dispute the idea that the resettlement programme has played any part in turning the tide, and accuse the authorities of providing too few incentives.

"Paying someone that amount of money [four million dinars] won’t even be enough to rebuild his house,” Abdul Khaliq Zangana, former head of the parliamentary committee for displaced persons and immigrants. "It isn’t enough to persuade him to return home, and then leave his family exposed to danger once again.

"If it hadn’t been for the Arab Spring, Iraqi refugees would never have returned.”

Khalid Waleed is an IWPR-trained freelance journalist in Iraq. IWPR Iraq editor Abeer Mohammad contributed additional reporting.