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BASRA, 7 Jun 2005 (IRIN) - The initial euphoria of returning to their homeland has turned into frustration for many Iraqi refugees who are still struggling to eek out a living in the midst of deteriorating social conditions.
"We left Iraq because of the injustice of Saddam [Hussein] and we came back to find ourselves homeless. My sons are jobless and we don't have money to buy a house, so we decided to live in the old naval academy," 60-year-old Um Hassan told IRIN.
The naval academy compound, situated on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra, shelters more than 250 families, most of whom have returned from neighbouring Iran since May 2003. The compound is considered to be relatively comfortable when compared with living conditions in other abandoned government buildings, many of which are being used to house scores of returnees.
Thirty-five-year-old Basri Hannon, who originally fled to Iran in 1992, says he expected to find at least a job to support his family when he returned to Iraq. Now he's not sure he did the right thing when he came home.
"I wish to return to Iran because at least there I had a job and means to support my family," Hannon said.
There were over 202,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran in September 2003, numbering over half the total of Iraqi refugees in the world. Local aid agencies now estimate that around 110,000 have returned to Iraq. Although most fled in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War, thousands more were forced to leave the country in the last 10 years when the former government drained marshlands in the south of the country, destroying their livelihoods.
"We came back to Iraq believing that we were going to find a country with democracy and freedom but what we found was just misery and displacement," Hannon said.
But in spite of overwhelmingly adverse conditions, thousands of Iraqis are still making their way home from Iran each month, some spontaneously, others with the assistance of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Rupert Coleville, a UNHCR spokesman told IRIN that repatriation was "strictly voluntary" and the agency had so far helped an estimated 16,000 Iraqis return home from Iran.
"With the cooperation of InterSOS (an Italian NGO) we have been distributing monthly food parcels and other necessary items such as blankets, tents, mattresses, kerosene and water containers. Many local aid organisations have been supporting us. But with the daily influx of refugees, the situation is getting complicated," a local UNHCR official told IRIN.
Hussein al-Saeedi, head of the Basra Directorate of Displacement and Migration (DoDM) noted that efforts were underway to assist displaced families obtain identification documents in order for them to access aid programmes.
"We are also trying to involve local IDP's (Internally Displaced Persons) in training courses to help them learn job skills. The UN Development Programme has promised the construction of 1,000 houses for the displaced in coming months," al-Saeedi added.
But some refugees have raised concerns over cumbersome bureaucratic procedures which, they claim, hamper access to much-needed assistance.
"We went to the DoDM and they asked us about our displacement documents. We didn't have and so they refused to help us. We have suffered a lot from the last regime and it's time for the new government to facilitate our lives and not make it more complicated," returnee Mohsen Jabbar, commented.
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society's (IRCS) southern-branch office has called for an urgent solution to address the abysmal living conditions of communities in the south.
"Health problems have increased among the displaced, especially those living in old abandoned buildings or in improvised tents on the outskirts of the city. Many children are suffering from malnutrition and diarrhoea," Hassan Jabbar, an IRCS official, told IRIN. Jabbar also drew attention to the many returnees crossing the Iran-Iraq border who have fallen victim to the heavily land-mined areas in the region.
Meanwhile, MoDI is expected to push ahead with the establishment of an office in Iran which would encourage Iraqi exiles to contribute to the reconstruction of the country.
"We wish that all Iraqis who fled Iraq during the last regime can come back to their true land and help in the reconstruction of Iraq," Mira Sulayman, senior MoDI official said.
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