Massive return of refugees strains Iraq

UN to offer $11m relief package

Refugees received aid from Red Crescent in a tent at a camp in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad on Monday. Hundreds of Iraqis have been displaced by the violent turmoil in Iraq. Refugees received aid from Red Crescent in a tent at a camp in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad on Monday. Hundreds of Iraqis have been displaced by the violent turmoil in Iraq. (Thaier al-Sudani /reuters)
Email|Print| Text size + By Hamza Hendawi
Associated Press / December 5, 2007

BAGHDAD - Iraq's government acknowledged yesterday that it cannot handle a massive return of refugees, as the UN announced an $11 million relief package to help the most vulnerable Iraqi families trickling back to their war-ravaged homeland.

The return of refugees is a politically charged issue in this country, where the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is eager to point to recent military gains against Al Qaeda in Iraq and other militants as evidence that Iraq is now a relatively safe place.

But the US military has warned that a massive return of refugees could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites and that some returnees have found their Baghdad homes occupied by members of the other Muslim sect.

"In reality, the ministry cannot absorb a return on that [large] scale," Iraqi Migration Minister Abdul-Samad Rahman told a news conference. "If the influx is huge, then neither the ministry nor the entire government can handle it."

At the same time, he appeared to take issue with US and UN assertions that security remains too fragile for Iraqis to come home in big numbers.

"I am not trying to defend the government or lure Iraqi families to come back, but we must tell the truth: The security situation is 90 percent stable," Rahman said. "The rate at which Iraqis are returning is not proportionate to the level of stability and security."

Rahman said Iraqi authorities were cooperating with the United Nations mission in Iraq to handle the current flow.

Priority would be given to those who wish to return from neighboring countries, like Syria and Jordan, where he said Iraqi exiles are living under difficult conditions.

Iraqis who found refuge farther afield in Europe and North America should stay put until the security situation further improves, he said.

Rahman did not give a figure for the number of Iraqis who have returned home in recent weeks. But the Iraqi Red Crescent said in a report this week that over 25,000 Iraqi refugees, mostly from Syria, have returned between Sept. 15 and Nov. 30.

The Red Crescent, the Red Cross's counterpart in the Muslim world, warned that many who returned to Iraq did so at least in part because their money ran out.

Government television has been intensely publicizing the return of the refugees, airing daily interviews with Iraqis getting off buses from Syria and asking them leading questions about security in Iraq and life away from home.

Many of them urge relatives and friends to join them back in Iraq.

Nearly 2 million Iraqis are believed to have fled to neighboring Arab nations since 2003 to escape a brutal Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence. Most of them went to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. About 2 million more are believed to have moved to other parts of Iraq.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it would be asking donors for an additional $200 million next year to deal with Iraqis who have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

"There are several hundred returning every day to Iraq from Syria," UNHCR spokeswoman Astrid van Genderen Stort said from Geneva. "We're definitely not seeing thousands a day return, as we've heard. Maximum a couple of hundred." She said virtually all returnees came from Syria.

"I don't know what the latest figures are, but we are talking about a very small trickle of people going back, and at the same time some people are still leaving," William Spindler, also of UNHCR, said in Geneva.

Announcing the $11.4 million relief package, Staffan De Mistura, the UN chief in Iraq, said that the money would be spent on 5,000 vulnerable families, or about 30,000 people, returning to Iraq in response to declining violence.

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