Broke and desperate, Ziad Qahtan Naeem and his family have returned to their house in war-battered Baghdad, a move they likened to a “death sentence”.
The six-member Shia family fled the Sunni-dominated Mansour neighbourhood of western Baghdad nearly two years ago and took refuge in Syria, joining more than one million Iraqis there.
But they have become part of a growing wave of Iraqis leaving Syria - not because they are confident of Iraq’s future but because they have run out of money.
Others are returning because the Syrian authorities have made it more difficult for them to stay as most Iraqis cannot work legally in Syria and have been surviving on savings or handouts from relatives.
“Being in Baghdad again means approaching your death sentence,” said Naeem, who supported his three sons, wife and mother in Syria after selling his tiny supermarket, his wife’s gold and other belongings.
“At any moment you or any member of your family could be a statistic in a police file,” added 46-year-old Naeem, who spent US$30,000 in Syria.
Over 46,000 return in October
The Iraqi government has said the number of Iraqis returning was growing, with more than 46,000 people coming home in October.
According to a government spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, 46,030 people returned to Iraq in October alone from neighbouring countries. He attributed the large number to the "improving security situation".
"The level of terrorist operations has dropped in most of the capital's neighbourhoods, due to the good performance of the armed forces," al-Moussawi told a press conference on 7 November in the heavily guarded Green Zone. He did not give returnee numbers before October.
The latest figure comes as Iraq's neighbours, particularly Syria and Jordan, tightened their borders.
Living in limbo in Syria and Jordan
Syria is home to at least 1.2 million Iraqi refugees and Jordan has about 750,000. Both countries are struggling to provide essential services to incoming Iraqis and are requesting entry visas. Iraqis say most of these applications have been declined.
Many Iraqis are living in limbo, unable to work and running out of whatever money they were able to bring out of Iraq.
Those who fled to Syria or Jordan before the new rules took effect must leave when their three-month permits expire unless they have been officially recognised by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) - a process that can take months.
Mu’taz Ali Safwan, a 36-year-old mechanical engineer who lived in Amman, the Jordanian capital, returned home because he is “fed up with all humiliation of life as a foreigner”. Before fleeing Iraq nearly a year ago, Safwan worked at the Ministry of Industry. But in Amman he worked in a barber’s shop.
|Young Iraqis play soccer in a district of Damascus. The Iraq government said that 46,030 people returned to Iraq in October alone from neighbouring countries|
“I know that I’m jeopardising my life with this return, but I’ve had enough and my savings are gone and I couldn’t get official residency and I had to live as a fugitive fearing the authorities,” Safwan added.
According to the UNHCR, two million Iraqis have fled. Some 54,000 Iraqis are in Iran, 40,000 in Lebanon, 10,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in various Gulf countries; Egypt has absorbed 100,000.
The US admitted 1,608 Iraqis as refugees this past year. Sweden has admitted more than 18,000 since 2006, the highest number in Europe, but now says it too is tightening asylum rules.