Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fled the country after sectarian violence broke out following the 2003 war which toppled Saddam Hussein. However, the precise number of refugees is hard to ascertain and fluctuates in line with changing perceptions and the security situation in Iraq.
"It would be nice to have the full picture, but the special circumstances of the Iraqi refugee population means we don't… although we have a good idea of the refugees registered with us," said Andrew Harper, head of the UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) Iraq Support Unit in Geneva.
Host governments (largely in the Middle East) at one time estimated that more than 2.5 million Iraqis had fled to their countries. But that statistic is now too high, say independent experts not affiliated with UNHCR. Distinguishing between refugees and other migrants, and deducting the number of those who have returned to Iraq for good can be difficult.
UNHCR has registered just over 400,000 Iraqis since 2003 but currently they have 200,000 on their books. More refugees register every day - some 2,000 per month in Syria. However, the agency says those figures are not definitive.
"Many refugees choose not to register with us, either because there is a stigma attached in asking for assistance or they see no reason to register unless they need our services," said Harper.
Currently, host governments claim some 1.5 million Iraqis remain on their territories, while Refugees International, a US-based NGO, said it believed only 500,000 Iraqis remained outside the country.
Reasons for discrepancies
The Iraqi refugees are hard to track because they reside almost exclusively in an urban rather than a camp setting, predominantly in Syria and Jordan. In July last year, a UNHCR report detailed the challenges.
Population mobility is another factor, according to Harper. Many families are split or commute between Syria and Iraq to see relatives, work, or are checking the situation on the ground.
In such a situation, they are harder to count, or may have their files deactivated by UNHCR if they are absent for long periods. UNHCR says mobility is positive as it allows refugees to stay in touch with their country and prepare for an eventual return.
Bald statistics can be misleading
Bald statistics, without a breakdown, can be misleading due to the high rates of movement. Over the past few months, a fairly consistent number of refugees have been registered in Syria - currently some 139,586 - but this figure masks the fact that each month some refugees leave and others register. Some 32,200 files were deactivated in the first 10 months of 2010, 5,408 people were resettled elsewhere, 176 returned to Iraq under the UNHCR voluntary repatriation scheme, and some 18,719 registered in the same time period, UNHCR says.
Statistical methods are also variable. "Many Iraqi refugees fled before the war," said Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow and Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution. "There is no agreement as to which time period to count people in."
Uncertainty over figures has posed challenges for aid agencies, but UNHCR says it bases its planning for staff and budget on the number of refugees it has registered.
Predicting trends can also be difficult, say experts. UNHCR has resettled more than 50,000 refugees, mostly in the USA, and assisted more than 2,000 to return to Iraq. But an unknown number is likely to have returned independently.
Within Iraq, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) registers returned refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). It says some 130,000 refugees have returned since 2007.
"Agencies have got used to working with imprecise figures," said Ferris, "but it is not good practice to develop programmes on this basis."
UNHCR contests this argument. "We have precise information regarding the registered refugees and base our programmes on their needs. This information is regularly updated," said Wafa Amr, UNHCR's regional spokesperson.
Agencies have come up with novel techniques to meet the challenges. UNHCR has more than 150 outreach workers in Syria alone who visit neighbourhoods to identify refugees. Publications are used to raise awareness of the plight of the refugees. To maintain the dignity of refugees and overcome challenges posed by refugees living in an urban setting, UNHCR has made cash payments available via an ATM. UNHCR uses SMS text messages to alert refugees, and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) recently rolled out an SMS food voucher scheme.
Despite the uncertainty, no new assessment of the Iraqi refugees is due. "There is a fear the numbers would come in lower and this would have an impact on governments such as Syria and Jordan as it may affect the amount of financing channelled to them," said Ferris.
More is known about IDPs, as the Iraqi authorities are better able to track them. UNHCR, Refugees International and Brookings agree on a figure of 1.5 million, 500,000 of whom live in slums. Of the returnees registered with the IOM, 86 percent are IDPs but overall numbers of returnees are said to be low.
"Our main concern is that a very substantial number of Iraqis needing assistance are going to remain in 2011 and probably longer," said Amr.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions