DAMASCUS, 22 November 2007 (IRIN) - Lack of funds and the Syrian government’s refusal to renew their visas, more than the perception of improved security in Iraq, are prompting some Iraqi refugees in Syria to return to Iraq, according to personal refugee accounts and figures from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The Iraqi government recently announced that 46,000 refugees returned to Iraq in October, mostly from Syria, while a Syrian immigration source said that between 1 October and 19 November 60,000 people had returned to Iraq.
Some media reports and Iraqi government officials have suggested the refugees are returning because of improved security following the US military “surge” earlier this year.
However, in a report released on 22 November, the UNHCR - which interviewed 110 Iraqis in Syria this week - found that only 14 percent of respondents said they were returning to Iraq because they believed the security situation had improved, as opposed to 70 percent who cited financial and visa reasons.
“I have no money because I’m not allowed to work,” said an Iraqi man waiting by the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, and who wished to remain anonymous. He and his family are planning to leave Syria for Iraq on 26 November. “Also my official visa has run out and the Syrian government won’t renew it.”
The majority of the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria are not allowed to work legally and, with the price of basic commodities and rent soaring, many who have used up their savings in Syria are now unable to afford to stay any longer.
In October, the Syrian government introduced new regulations preventing refugees from renewing their three month visas upon expiry. Refugees say they are now being given exit stamps when they try and renew their visas and are unwilling to risk imprisonment by staying illegally.
“People are running out of savings and they’re just not seeing how they can make ends meet this winter in Syria,” said Sybella Wilkes, a UNHCR spokesperson in Syria, told IRIN. “When they are trying to renew their visas they get an exit stamp in their passport and they assume they can’t stay.”
The Iraqi refugee planning to return home on 26 November said: “Security is getting slightly better, but there are still huge problems, especially with the militias.” He said most of the people he knew returning were doing so because their visas had expired, not because of perceived improvements in security.
UN dismisses newspaper report
The UNHCR dismissed as “exaggerated” a report in UK newspaper The Times on 21 November that described Sayeda Zeinab, the southern Damascus suburb where most Iraqi refugees live, as “almost deserted,” saying UNHCR field staff had reported the area still “overcrowded with Iraqis”.
The Iraqi government has been keen to capitalise on the news that refugees are returning, saying it is connected with the improved security situation. The US military says attacks across the country have fallen to their lowest level since February 2006, attributing this partly to the additional nearly 30,000 US troops earlier this year.
“People are leaving [for Iraq] because the security situation is much better than before,” said a source at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus who wished to remain anonymous.
The embassy is now planning to sponsor a free bus and plane convoy carrying refugees back to Iraq, the embassy source added, saying: “Thousands of people will be transported back to Iraq.”
Posters advertising improved security and the free convoy, initially planned for 26 November, have been plastered across Damascus’s refugee quarter of Sayeda Zeinab.
An Iraqi diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Iraqi Finance Minister Bayan Jabr was expected in Damascus in the coming days with $15 million in aid to assist the Syrian government in helping Iraqi refugees.