Iraqi refugee Ibtissam Abdul-Wahab Hassan returned from Syria to her home in Baghdad to find the doors broken down, some furniture stolen and parts of the house gutted by fire.
The house of another returnee, Adil Abdullah Munthir, was spared a ransacking, but is now occupied by another family who refuse to leave until he finds them another place to live.
[Read this report in Arabic]
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees living in Syria have been coming back to Baghdad after a sharp decline in violence in the Iraqi capital. Many of the returnees have been shocked to find their homes destroyed, looted or occupied.
“We lost everything,” said Ibtissam, a 54-year-old Shia mother-of-four who arrived in Iraq three weeks ago. “Nearly two years ago we fled to Syria after my husband escaped an assassination attempt by Sunni militants after he refused to obey them and leave the neighbourhood.”
She decided to return to Baghdad with her 16-year-old son to prepare the house for when the rest of the family came back. ”But I never imagined how hard and expensive this was going to be. We have almost run out of resources and we depend only on our pensions,” she said.
In a bid to help these families, the Iraqi government is giving each returning family one million Iraqi dinars (about US$900).
“This amount is not enough to buy furniture for two rooms,” said Ibtissam, who now lives in her brother’s house.
“I was really dismayed when I found children playing in our garden and a woman washing clothes in a cooking pot in our garage,” said Munthir, a 44-year-old Sunni father-of-two who returned to Baghdad’s southern Bayaa neighbourhood after having fled to Syria for 18 months.
“When I told them that this is my house and they have to leave, they told me ‘find us another place, as we were forced out of our house by your militants [Sunni insurgents], and then you will never see us again’,” Munthir said.
“Now I live in my parents’ house and I’m contacting Shia religious and political officials in my neighbourhood who promised to help me solve this,” he added.
On 5 November, the Iraqi government said that it had formed a committee headed by the Minister of Immigration and Displacement to address the problem of returnees’ properties.
“We are facing some problems but all these problems will be solved as the governmental committee will survey the refugees’ houses which are occupied by other displaced families,” Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the Iraqi army, told a press conference in Baghdad.
However, al-Mousawi refused to elaborate on what specific measures the government would be taking to resolve the issue.
Government unable to handle huge influx
While the Iraqi government has been encouraging refugees in neighbouring countries to return – such as by airing commercials on state television and providing free buses from Damascus to Baghdad - it acknowledges that the country is not yet safe enough to absorb big numbers of returnees.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), just over two million Iraqis have become refugees in other countries – largely Syria, Jordan and Lebanon - while more than 2.4 million Iraqis are displaced within their own country.
UNHCR said on 7 December that it is proving difficult to determine the number of Iraqi returnees from Syria. Spokesman William Spindler said that between August and the end of November, UNHCR staff in Syria had received reports from the Iraqi border authorities that 97,000 Iraqis had entered Syria from Iraq, while at the same time 128,000 left Syria for Iraq through the main al-Waleed border point.
|Iraqis set up a stall in a Damascus district. Many are leaving Syria for Iraq for economic reasons|
He added that not all these people had been refugees.
According to a study conducted by UNHCR in Syria, 46 percent of Iraqis were going home because they could no longer afford to stay, 14 percent because they heard the security situation had improved and 25 percent because their visas had expired.
According to the Iraqi government, 45,000 refugees returned to Iraq during October alone and 10,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have gone back to their homes due to the improved security situation.
"If the influx is huge, then neither the ministry nor the entire government could handle it,” Abdul-Samad Rahman, Iraqi Migration Minister, told a Baghdad news conference on 4 December. “Priority would be given to those who wish to return from neighbouring countries, like Syria and Jordan, where Iraqi exiles are living in difficult conditions.
"The security situation is 90 percent stable but the rate at which Iraqis are returning is not proportionate to the level of stability and security,” Rahman said.
UN relief package
In addition to the Iraqi government’s financial aid to returning families, the UN has allocated US$11.4 million for an assistance programme for the most vulnerable returning families.
Staffan de Mistura, the chief UN envoy to Iraq, said the assistance would include food baskets and other emergency kits for 5,000 families, or some 30,000 individuals.
"There is a flow of returnees," he said. "It's not massive, but it is a flow. We have the responsibility to respond to it in a way that we provide adequate assistance and protection,” de Mistura said at the 4 December press conference.
De Mistura repeated recent UN warnings that it was too early to encourage a mass return among the more than two million Iraqis living outside their country because of the fragility of the security situation. But he acknowledged that some Iraqis were coming home and needed to be cared for.
"The focus is on vulnerable groups and mostly in greater Baghdad because that's where they are currently returning [to]," he said.