Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tough Homecoming for Iraqi Refugees

Thousands of Iraqis who fled abroad are heading back - but many don’t have homes to return to.
When 45-year-old Amira Abdul-Wahab returned to Baghdad earlier this month, she knew that she probably would not be able to go home. But that did not stop her from trying.

Abdul-Wahab, a widow, fled from the al-Baya’ neighbourhood of Baghdad last year after militants threatened her family. She and her 18-year-old daughter took refuge in Syria, where they received news that their house had been looted by criminals and then occupied by civilians. Whey arrived back in Baghdad two weeks ago, Abdul-Wahab, a Sunni, went to her house to try to reclaim it.

"I learned that the people in my house were an elderly couple and a young girl. Because of that, I felt like I could go and talk to them," she said. “I was shocked when they refused to leave, claiming that Shia militias had settled them in the house."

Abdul-Wahab turned down the family’s offer to live with them, and now she and her daughter are squeezed into a tiny apartment in the al-Jami’a neighbourhood. The women cannot afford mattresses or furniture and sleep on carpets, cooking and heating the house with a small kerosene heater.

Since late November, the Iraqi government has provided Iraqi refugees in Syria with free busses home from Damascus and promised financial aid.

However, critics say the government is not doing enough to support former refugees - many of whom are returning to find their homes looted, destroyed or occupied.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates between 1.2 million and 1.4 million Iraqi refugees are in Syria and 500,000 to 700,000 in Jordan.

In September, Damascus placed tight visa restrictions on Iraqis, halting the flow of Iraqis into the country and making it difficult for many of them to stay there.

Jordan imposed similar restrictions earlier this year, and at least ten of Iraq’s 18 provinces stopped accepting internally displaced Iraqis.

Figures on the number of returnees vary. The Iraqi government has estimated that more than 60,000 refugees who fled abroad have come back; the Iraqi

Red Crescent in early October put the figure at 25,000.

So far, most of the returnees are from Syria, returning because they were running out of money or their visas had expired, according to the agency.

UNHCR research has revealed that most - 66 per cent - are not going back to their own homes.

“I don’t know why the Iraqi government has asked them to come back when they don’t have a plan for them,” said Jenan Mubarak, a Baghdad-based women’s and human rights activist.

“The most important thing is that they need to remove squatters. If this doesn’t happen, any other initiatives are useless.”

In addition to housing problems, returnees are facing unemployment, poverty and poor access to basic services. Iraq’s crumbling infrastructure forces families to purchase their own water and private generators for electricity - making basic services luxuries that many former refugees can’t afford.

Although the government and aid agencies have plans to provide services, cash and property restitution programmes for returning families, they have not offered any tangible support yet.

For example, no family has received the 800 US dollars they were promised because the government was trying to figure out how to distribute the funds, said Samia Aziz, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s migration and displacement committee.

Aziz and Hamdiya Najaf, acting minister of displacement and migration, said the ministry is expected to distribute the funds by the end of the month.

In addition, the UN and Iraq’s ministry of displacement and migration plan to begin an 11 million dollar initiative to provide 10,000 returnee families with household items, such as blankets, heaters and stoves this month.

The ministry and international aid agencies also plan to study needs assessments of returnees to determine their food, health care, water and sanitation and housing needs, said senior UNHCR media officer Astrid Van Genderen Stort.

A committee - headed by former deputy prime minister Ahmed Chalabi and including representatives from the ministry as well as the US embassy and military - has also been formed to help resolve housing issues. It will distribute forms to returnees who want to return to their occupied homes, who will then submit their cases to the police, reported government-run newspaper Al-Sabah.

IWPR could not reach Chalabi for comment, and his spokesman declined to discuss on the committee’s work.

Mubarak said some may not trust the police to handle their property dispute claims and questioned how long the returnees can wait for financial assistance.

Stort said that in spite of reports that violence in Iraq is declining, UNHCR was “extremely concerned about the safety of IDP and refugee returnees throughout Iraq”.

The agency is not encouraging refugees to go back to Iraq because of security concerns, which the UNHCR says affects reconciliation efforts, unemployment and property disputes for returnees.

Some say they had little choice but to return.

Abdul-Hussien Mohammad Ali, from Baghdad’s al-Adil neighbourhood, fled to Syria with his family in December 2006 after his 28-year-old son was killed in sectarian violence. The US military destroyed his house after being told that a militia was hiding there, he said.

Ali and his family now live in a small room in one of their relatives' homes. He doesn't have money to re-build his house and has not received any financial aid. He said he doesn't think the US military will compensate him for the loss of his home.

Ali said his family’s life in Syria was safer, but not better.

"It was really difficult in Syria,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. “We had lost our son and we missed home. It’s hard to live in a foreign country without financial resources."