More Iraqi refugees leaving Syria than entering

For the first time since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Damascus suggest that more Iraqi refugees are leaving Syria to return home than are entering the country.

On 27 November, the first Iraqi government-sponsored convoy of 17 coaches left Damascus for Baghdad, transporting up to 800 refugees back to Iraq.

According to UNHCR estimates, 1,500 Iraqis are now returning to Iraq each day from Syria, while only 500 new refugees are arriving in Syria from Iraq each day. The Iraqi government says 45,000 refugees returned to Iraq during October alone.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is set to greet the convoy when it arrives in Baghdad later on 28 November, using it to highlight the security gains across the country that followed the US troop surge earlier this year.

Many refugees boarding the coaches said the perception of improved security in Iraq was a key factor in their decision to return home.

"I'm leaving because I've heard the security situation is improving," said Ahiaf Ahmad as he waited to board his bus. "If it's good I'll come back and get my family as well."

More on Syria's visa clampdown

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Iraqi refugees in Syria talk about their poor living conditions and uncertain future (03:18)

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Push factors

Nevertheless, a recent report by the UNHCR suggested that many refugees are returning to Iraq against their will as a result of financial and legal difficulties.

"The majority of people are going back either because they're running out of savings and making ends meet has finally become impossible, or for the first time we're finding that people are not able to renew their visas, and they're getting an exit stamp in their passports," said Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the UNHCR in Syria.

As buses departed on 27 November, some refugees expressed frustration that their life in exile had become virtually impossible.

"We've received no help from anyone here," said Khadoum Mohammed, saying the soaring cost of living in Syria, where rents have more than doubled and basic commodity prices increased, had become financially unsustainable for him.

Mohammed Kazal, packing his people-carrier van alongside the buses, said that he and his family were leaving because of the new Syrian visa laws that have limited the renewal of visas for Iraqis. "I am scared because I see it's still very dangerous in Iraq," he said.

The UNHCR, worried that refugees are being forced back to a life of danger in Iraq, has increased aid to refugees in an attempt to make life in Syria more manageable. Some 51,000 people are now receiving food assistance, 10,000 receive financial assistance and according to Wilkes these services are being "massively up-scaled."

The Iraqi authorities say they plan to continue regular free bus services back to Iraq.

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