BAGHDAD, 18 May 2011 (IRIN) - The Iraqi authorities are bracing for a possible influx of returnees from neighbouring countries affected by violent protests, especially Syria, and say hundreds have already returned from Libya.
"Although there has been no major threat against Iraqi families until now. We are closely monitoring the developments and are ready for any emergencies," said Iraq Migration and Displacement Minister Dendar Najman Al-Dosky.
"We have established an emergency committee with the concerned ministries, UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency], the Iraqi Red Crescent and other international organizations and set up a centre to register the returning refugees, offer the needed services and help them reach their destinations inside Iraq," he told IRIN.
"Another committee will visit Al-Waleed border crossing [on the Syria-Iraq border] to investigate the setting up a makeshift camp in the event of a huge influx from Syria, [and how ] to immediately shelter and offer services to refugees before they are sent to their areas," the minister added.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, according to the minister, fled violence in their home country after 2003 and have since lived in Syria. Others fled the country during the violence of the 1990s. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that over two million Iraqis live in neighbouring states, mainly Syria and Jordan. Another 1.9 million have been displaced internally by continuing insecurity, sectarian violence, criminality and military operations.
"Wherever there is widespread unrest and violence we start to get in touch with Iraqi refugees to meet their needs in these countries, or to secure a safe evacuation for those who are willing to return," Al-Dosky said. About 520 Iraqis have been evacuated from Libya and Yemen in the past few days, he added. Plans are under way to evacuate another 140 from Libya in the next few days.
The authorities are offering free plane tickets to those wishing to return and giving families 300,000 Iraqi dinars (US$250) on arrival. The government has promised jobs and help with school enrolments.
Recently, however, the minister said the money that the government had allocated to help displaced persons and returnees was not enough, despite a pledge to tackle internal displacement, and monitor and assist Iraqi refugees abroad. The ministry was allocated the equivalent of US$250 million this year, but needs $416-500 million to fully implement its plans, he said.
Funding shortfalls have also affected the work of international organizations. In its 2011 Global Appeal, UNHCR said its 2011 Iraq budget was about $210.6 million, representing a 20-40 percent funding shortfall.
In 2010, UNHCR found that most Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan were not considering returning permanently to Iraq in the near future due to continuing political uncertainty and instability. Government statistics indicated that only 18,240 Iraqi refugees returned from countries of asylum in the first eight months of that year.
At least 700 people have reportedly been killed in Syria, as the government tries to crush protests. [ http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportID=92464 ] Most of the violence has occurred in the southern city of Deraa. The US and the EU have announced plans to impose greater sanctions, while humanitarian agencies have called for access to those affected. Protests in Libya too have forced hundreds of thousands to leave the country.