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No work forces refugees into risky return

An Iraqi refugee looks out over Amman. Of the estimated two million Iraqis who have fled their homeland, some 700,000 are currently sheltering in Jordan, with the majority living in Amman

It takes courage - or desperation - for an Iraqi refugee to return home, given the levels of violence in the country. But unable to support their families abroad, some are taking that decision.

The risks are substantial: According to a survey by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 61 percent of Iraqi asylum-seekers who have returned home have regretted it, citing the astonishing levels of insecurity.

Umm Hassan (not her real name) fled to Amman, Jordan with her children to escape the war, but unable to support her family, returned home last year. She was back in Amman nine months later . “The situation was unbearable in Baghdad. It was so dangerous, there were explosions, and we had no source of income there either. We stayed at various relatives’ houses while I had no way to provide for my children. In the end we decided to come back to Jordan again, though we knew things would be hard,” she told IRIN in a telephone interview.

UNHCR estimates there are 1.78 million Iraqi refugees - the second-largest refugee group in the world - and has registered 207,639. The overwhelming majority have sought refuge in neighbouring Syria and Jordan, with a significant proportion in Lebanon and Egypt.

The problem is “Iraqis do not have the right to work in host countries, and those who do are immersed in the informal economy,” said Asma Al-Haidari, a Jordan-based human rights activist. Of the four main countries of asylum, only Egypt has signed the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which guarantees the right to work for legally recognized refugees. In Syria and Jordan, Iraqis are considered “guests”.

Only documented refugees are entitled to a small financial package from UNHCR - most are not registered. With restrictions on the right to work and savings exhausted, Iraqis are pushed into poverty and trying to make ends meet in the informal economy. “It is purely as a result of their desperation that some Iraqis are voluntarily returning to Iraq,” said Al-Haidari.

“Some progress has been made with guaranteeing Iraqi refugees basic services such as access to primary education and health care in Syria and Jordan,” said Hana Al-Bayaty, coordinator of the Cairo-based Iraqi International Initiative on Refugees.


But there are no guarantees on access to free secondary and higher education in host countries, whose educational systems are already under strain. That can act as a further inducement for people to choose to return, particularly for middle class families that have traditionally valued education.

“My elder daughter is a lawyer, and my son has just graduated from a professional academy whose fees have put us all in debt. Neither of them can work, and I cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Umm Hassan, a widow. “We have difficulties meeting our most basic needs. But we have nowhere to go.”

UNHCR has counted 19,530 individuals and 4,200 families who have chosen to return to Iraq between January and September this year. The Refugee Agency currently discourages returnees to Iraq, and in particular Baghdad, due to the insecurity, but the majority are heading to the city.

Economic opportunities for returnees are also limited. In the UNHCR survey, 87 percent said they were currently unable to cover their families’ needs, while 11 percent cited poor economic conditions and unemployment as reasons for not returning to their former homes and neighbourhoods.

Most returnees to the Baghdad districts of Karkh and Resafa have not gone back to their original homes, but rather are staying with relatives, friends or in rented accommodation, mainly as a result of ongoing fears of persecution.

According to Al-Bayaty, a sizeable number of returnees are living in squats in old public buildings. “Many refugees’ homes are occupied, either by organized militias or individual families. Returning refugees therefore generally become internally displaced persons.”

Iraq already has 1.5 million displaced persons, including 500,000 in settlements or camp-like conditions.


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