Iraq + 1 more

Syria: Some Iraqis return; thousands more register for food aid

News and Press Release
Originally published
DAMASCUS, 21 October 2008 (IRIN) - Several hundred Iraqis returned home from Syria this week and last, but thousands more continue to register with the UN in Damascus to receive vital food aid, underscoring the hardship faced by the huge refugee community.

Some 150 Iraqi refugees flew back to Baghdad on 15 October on a flight paid for by the Iraqi government, the first such assisted return since November 2007, in a move officials said was made possible by improved security in Iraq.

But the latest figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), showed that in the three months to the end of September some 13,000 Iraqi refugees had newly registered with the agency, allowing them to receive financial and material support.

The Syrian government now says there are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, down from a 1.5 million two years ago, but considerably higher than some NGOs estimate.

The movement of people across the Syrian-Iraqi border remains huge, though with the situation in Iraq more stable the UNHCR is unable to estimate how many of those arriving or leaving Syria are refugees seeking asylum, and how many are simply on personal or business trips.

Throughout August, a busy holiday season, some 4,000-4,500 individuals entered Syria from Iraq per day, while 2,500-3,000 exited, according to UNHCR figures based on Ministry of Immigration information. In July, around 2,800 entered on any one day, while 1,700 departed. Both months thus registered a net increase of the Iraqi population in Syria.

Food aid

Throughout October food aid - such as rice, oil and lentils, a ration of tea, sugar, tomato paste and pasta - which began in November 2007, will be made available to some 194,000 Iraqis.

Food will be distributed from centres in Douma and Sayyide Zeinab, suburbs of Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo, home to some 15,000 Iraqi refugees.

"Life would be too difficult without the food ration; it covers more than half our expenses," said Shada, an Iraqi refugee at the Douma distribution centre, asking that her family name be withheld.

Having been in Syria for 16 months - fleeing home after she said she discovered her name on a hit list of the Mahdi army, a Shia militia in Baghdad - Shada, a Christian, said she was re-applying for her UNHCR refugee certificate for another two years.

Assistance for returnees

Iraqi officials said those returning would be guaranteed their homes and jobs back, addressing a key concern of refugees, given the sectarian cleansing that has taken place in many mixed neighbourhoods of Baghdad.

They also said all returning families would receive financial assistance and compensation.

"There are lots of facilities and financial aid for the returning Iraqis, as part of the project of Voluntary Return", Ahmad Saad, head of the press section at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, told IRIN.

"The returning refugees will receive US$200 per person, including children, and in addition each family will receive $1,000," he said.

Returning refugees will be allowed to bring their cars, furniture and other belongings accumulated in Damascus across the border without paying taxes and will be eligible for cash compensation on completing a police report confirming the loss of their possessions in Iraq.

Those without work can apply for a loan from the Iraqi Central Bank of $6,000-$9,000 in order to start new businesses.

UNHCR counselling

While the UNHCR is not encouraging return, the agency "does not want to be a barrier to individuals' decisions to go back", said Sybella Wilkes, senior public information officer with the UNHCR in Damascus.

The UNHCR says it is counselling potential returnees on their decision, to make sure they are fully aware that their UNHCR refugee file will be closed and they will require a visa from the Syrian embassy in Baghdad - which received its ambassador on 13 October - in order to return to Syria.

UNHCR administers a Voluntary Return Grant for returning refugees. The agency gives each adult $100, and $50 per child, with a $500 ceiling for families.

"This financial assistance UNHCR is giving to the returning Iraqis is really a helping hand for the first week, not a financial incentive," said Wilkes.

Refugees just arriving

But even as some families decide to return to Iraq, other refugees are just arriving in Syria. Haider had gone to the UNHCR's Douma centre to register for refugee status in early October, having arrived in Syria three days earlier.

"My life is under serious threat," said the young Sunni man in his late 20s, who asked to remain anonymous.

Haider said he had been released earlier this year from a two-year prison sentence in Buka prison in Shia-controlled Basra, sentenced on charges of carrying a weapon illegally, though he claims his detention was sectarian motivated.

"Buka prison contains many insurgents and because I could speak English I was nominated to translate between the insurgent leaders in the prison and the American prison officials. But other detainees thought interpreters are spies," he said.

Although he acknowledged the security situation in Iraq was improving, Haider said the dangers of having been known as an interpreter, even just in prison, meant he could never return.

"I am a wanted man," he said. "I hope to find another country to live my life."