Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo December 31, 2008

A Few Are Willing to Risk the Return to Baghdad

Media file: 1069.jpg

An exodus of more than 2 million Iraqis is reshaping the Middle East -- with ominous implications...


JARAMANA, Syria -- Hasem Abed is thinking about going back to Iraq.

The small-time auto trader, 32, left Diyala earlier this year after members of a Shia militia destroyed his house.

He says this town outside Damascus has been more secure, but he has run out of money and has been unable to find work. He is thinking of trying his luck in Baghdad.

Hassam Abdul Rahman might join him. Life in Iraq, the 42-year-old mechanical engineer says, "is very bad." But he, too, has exhausted his savings in Syria.

"I think I will return to Baghdad and" - he pauses - "see if it's good to live."

While the majority of the more than 2 million Iraqi refugees remain in Syria, Jordan and other Iraqi neighbors, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 110,000 have returned to the country. Neither the United Nations nor the United States is encouraging returns.

Refugee advocates say the principal reason Iraqis have for going back is that they have run out of money - not that they believe conditions have become safe.

"It's not massive in any way," says Laurens Jolles, the UNHCR representative in Jordan. "We're still talking about individuals and smaller groups of people. But I think that there is probably more willingness now to consider return. Not least because of the length of time people have stayed abroad, because of the fact that they're not seeing any foreseeable advantage for them to continue staying, and because the situation in host countries such as Jordan and Syria is become to a certain extent more difficult."

Given the sectarian cleansing that has taken place in Baghdad and elsewhere, many have returned not to their homes, which in some cases are occupied by other families, but to other neighborhoods, cities and regions.

"They're going from one displacement to another displacement," says Imran Riza, the top U.N. refugee official in Jordan.

"It's not clear when they'll go back to their homes, and it's not clear what policy applies and what guidelines will apply and what legislation applies in terms of property restitution."

Many Iraqis say they will never return. Distrust of the current government is widespread among the refugees, as is skepticism about reports of declining violence.

"It is impossible," said Nadia Abbas, a 39-year-old Shia Muslim who is married to a Sunni. "I cannot live in a Shia neighborhood because my husband will be killed. We cannot live in a Sunni neighborhood because I will be killed."

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues