Iraq: Propaganda Isn't Enough for Refugees to Return

To show that Iraq was safe enough for the two million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan to return, the Iraqi government organized a bus convoy last November from Damascus to Baghdad carrying 800 Iraqis home for free.

As a propaganda exercise designed to show that the Iraqi government was restoring peace, it never quite worked. The majority of the returnees said they were returning to Baghdad, not because it was safer, but because they had run out of money in Syria or their visas had expired.

There has been no mass return of the two million Iraqis who fled to Syria and Jordan or a further 2.4 million refugees who left their homes within Iraq. The latest figures from the UN High Commission for Refugees show that, on the contrary, the number of people entering Syria from Iraq was 1,200 a day in late January "while an average of 700 are going back to Iraq from Syria."

The reasons people are not going back, despite new stringent visa regulations in Syria, are that they know Baghdad is very dangerous, the chances of making a living are small and there is a continuing lack of electricity and water.

The case of Mohammed Salman al-Dlaimi, who used to distribute food rations in the Sunni enclave of al-Khudat in west Baghdad, explains why so many left and are dubious about coming back. He lived in his father's large house with his three brothers, making just enough money to survive, until he was arrested by the National Guard in 2007.

"They accused me of being a member of al-Qa'ida," he said, "and tortured me because I'm a Sunni. Everybody knows I am just a small businessman."

Released after three months, he fled to Syria, saying to friends: "I plan to move to Tartous [on the coast] and start a business on a small scale importing cars."

But, like many other Iraqi refugees, he discovered that Syrians would not let them become business competitors. He returned to Baghdad in December and stayed in his family's house, but on the night of 20 January, neighbors heard women screaming and, in the morning, they learned he had been arrested again by the National Guard.

Not all returnees suffer disaster. Marwan Omar is a 35-year-old Sunni doctor who used to work at Yarmouk hospital in west Baghdad. In 2006, the hospital came under the control of Mehdi Army Shia militia and his father was worried that his name would identify him as a Sunni and they would kill him. His father was also intimidated out of his job in the railway station by Shia militiamen.

The family moved to Syria but Dr Omar found he was not allowed to work in Syrian hospitals and they could not get their visas renewed. Back in Baghdad Dr Omar has found work in a private clinic, within a Sunni enclave he never leaves.

Baghdad is safer than it was in 2006 and early 2007 during those days of the mass slaughter, when Shia and Sunni were automatically killed if they fell into the hands of the other community. But it is still very dangerous for returning refugees, particularly if their houses have been taken over.

Sometimes the threat against returnees is very specific. The Al-Mussawi family had unwisely put up a black flag announcing that their father, a restaurant owner in Saadoun Street, had been martyred by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s for being a member of the Shia Dawa party. They did that four years ago but the act advertised their sympathies.

The morning after they returned from Syria, they found a threatening letter enclosing two Kalashnikov bullets outside their door. "The problem is," said one Shia woman, "that Sunni and Shia in Baghdad just don't feel safe with each other any more."


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