Story Publication logo December 30, 2008

Roadblocks to Return

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


DAMASCUS, Syria -- Adnan al-Sharafy sees a few obstacles holding up the return of Iraqi refugees to their home country: the U.S. military, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the news media.

Sharify, an official at the Iraqi Embassy here in Syria, helped to organize government-sponsored bus trips at the end of last year that he says carried 420 Iraqi families back to Baghdad. (The United Nations estimates the Iraqi population here at 1.2 million.)

More free rides home are planned, Sharify says. But finding takers is likely to remain a challenge.

Sharify blames the U.S. military for making it difficult to enter Iraq, causing waits at the border that he says can last days. He blames the United Nations refugee agency for raising the hopes of Iraqis seeking resettlement to North America or Europe. And the news media, for reporting every violent incident that occurs in Iraq.

"About 90 percent of Iraq is safe now," Sharify says. "The main reason Iraqis came to Syria was the security situation. Now the Iraqi government has solved that problem."

With violence continuing in Iraq and no system in place to resolve disputes between returning homeowners and squatters, neither the United States nor refugee advocates are encouraging returns. All are pushing the Iraqi government to give more money to the neighboring countries now burdened with large numbers of Iraqis.

"They made a gesture toward Syria and toward Jordan, but it was very small compared to the needs," says Laurens Jolles, the top U.N. refugee official in Syria.

Iraqi officials say they are responsible for bringing their citizens home, not making them comfortable in their host countries. Still, Sharify says, the Iraqi government gave $25 million to the Syrian government last year.

Syrian officials estimate the cost of hosting the Iraqis at $2 billion. Sharify says the two governments now are haggling over the differences.

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