UNHCR cash for Iraqi refugees, but many vow never to return

With a Shia mother and a Sunni father, and having worked for the US forces in Iraq, Asad al-Johari and his family found themselves a target for both sides of Baghdad’s civil war.

His mother was murdered in a Sunni neighbourhood of west Baghdad, two years ago, but when they moved east to the Shia stronghold of Sadr City the family received a letter telling them to “leave or die”.

Now, like many of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees who sought shelter in Syria, Johari says he may never see his homeland again.

“We will never go back. It’s just too dangerous,” said the engineer, who has a wife and seven children to support in their new life as refugees in Damascus.

Despite the security gains of the past year - in part due to a surge in US troop numbers - and the insistence of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Iraq is now safe enough for refugees to return, a recent survey by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), found only four percent of respondents planning to return to Iraq.

Photo: J.Wreford/UNHCR
An Iraqi woman with her belongings on a Damascus street

That figure, from a March survey of 994 Iraqis conducted with researchers IPSOS, was significantly down on a similar survey from last November in which 14 percent of respondents said the security situation had improved to the point where they felt they could return. Even then, many of those that did return were doing so because of lack of money and visa problems.


The latest UNHCR survey found that the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria living on less than US$100 per month had soared from 5 percent last November to 20 percent by March.

Asad’s household survives on food assistance from aid agencies and some money his brother, also a refugee, can spare them.

“If I had worked one year for the Americans I would be in America now, but I only worked for them for seven months,” said Asad, who said he knew of other former interpreters who had gained asylum in the USA.

Photo: Haretha Yousuf/IRIN
Clients throw paper money at an Iraqi prostitute in a bar outside Damascus. Many Iraqi refugees have resorted to increasingly desperate and harmful measures to make ends meet

Out of the six households interviewed by IRIN over two days, every one of them said they had been threatened and would not return to Iraq.

“I’ve lost everything and have nothing to return to; my house was stolen, and everything in it, and now I have no family in Iraq,” said Feryal Mohammed, an elderly woman who fled Iraq for Damascus with her two children in 2006 after her son and husband were killed - she says, by Al Qaeda.

Mohammed, registered with the UNHCR, has been waiting without success for over a year to join her daughter in the USA, who is suffering from depression.

Unable to obtain official work permits in Syria, many Iraqi refugees have resorted to increasingly desperate and harmful measures to make ends meet - including commercial sex work, eating lower quality or less food, and child labour.

ICG report

Criticising what it calls the West’s “less than generous” financial support for Iraq’s refugee population and the “callous neglect” shown by the government in Baghdad, a July report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) found “no indication that large numbers of refugees have returned because of a positive reassessment of security conditions”.

“Far more than improved conditions at home, it is unbearable conditions in exile that appear to have been the determining factor in most returns,” said the report, entitled Failed Responsibility: Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The UNHCR’s latest statement on the issue says “the current situation in Iraq does not yet offer the necessary guarantees for a safe, sustainable and dignified return of Iraqi refugees.”

Photo: Julien Lennert/IRIN
Iraqi refugees register at the UNHCR centre in Damascus. As of 19 July, 215,214 Iraqi refugees were registered with UNHCR

According to official Syrian statistics from the Interior Ministry, cited in the ICG report, 365,093 Iraqi refugees left and 286,145 entered between 1 October 2007 and 23 April 2008, suggesting a net decrease in the Iraqi refugee population of under 80,000.

UNHCR financial aid

As well as food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP), Iraqi refugees are now able to receive financial assistance via a new UNHCR ATM card system.

“People increasingly need financial assistance to keep a roof over their heads,” Carole Laleve, reporting officer with UNHCR Damascus, told IRIN. 

Heads of households registered with the UNHCR receive around $100 a month, plus $10 for each dependant. Out of 63,575 families registered with the UNHCR, 10,533 have now received their ATM cards, nearly the 12,000 total number of families which the UNHCR estimates qualifies for the financial assistance. 

The system is costing $1.7 million a month, said Laleve, and is “intended to support the enrolment of Iraqi children in Syrian schools and prevention efforts against problems such as sexual gender-based violence, homelessness and child labour”.