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Focus on uncertain future for returnees from Iran

For Karim Ramadan Ali, a 40-year-old who has lived in exile in Iran for nearly 30 years, life is finally starting to get better. When he returned to his childhood home two months ago with documents showing that his family owned the house, Ali managed to convince the people now living there to leave. Now, he’ll return to Iran to get his family and move home. “I want to return to my country to help out,” Ali told IRIN in the southeastern Iraqi city of Kut. “I want to start a business, which I can’t do in Iran.” Others have not been so lucky in the search for their homes. Razak Ali Murad is trying to help relatives come back, but is facing many obstacles. His sister, Fatuma, and her family have not been able to return as their house was sold in the 1970s after the family fled the country for Iran. The current owners feel no obligation to sell it back to them, Murad, 53, said. Fatuma's family stayed with Murad for a few months but are now back in Iran, hoping that a new interim Iraqi government will provide housing for them after a planned 30 June handover of sovereignty from US-led coalition forces to Iraqis. “If it’s possible for them to stay after that, they will,” Murad said. “If not, her family will live with me." Iran hosts the largest number of Iraqi refugees in the world at around 202,000, according to the office for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Iraqis have fled to Iran since the mid-1970s, escaping war and persecution, with many arriving following the 1991 Gulf war. Many were also forced out in the past 10 years when the former regime of Saddam Hussein drained marshlands in the south, taking away the livelihoods of thousands of people, who now want to return. And with the 30 June handover date set, Tehran is pressuring an estimated 1 million Iraqis in its country to go home, Ali said. There’s a year-long deadline through next spring, he said, but it’s making thousands of people think about moving. “They’re saying, ‘Your country is liberated, why don’t you go home?’” Ali said. “It was a rumor spreading, but it seems to be true.” In an IRIN report on 23 March, Italian NGO Intersos also said that there seemed to be pressure from within Iran, which has the world's largest refugee population, with over two million Afghans living in the country. Selman Mousa Hatem, 53, is also finding the return procees hard. He and 40 neighbours came back to southern Iraq eight months ago to scout out the situation before bringing his family. But all he found was a job at the Kurdistan Union Party as a guard, he said. And his house had been torn down. “No one is helping us, not the political parties or the NGOs,” Hatem said bitterly. “We only get personal help. There’s no serious steps taken by anyone, not even (US administrator Paul) Bremer.” Numbers are hard to come by, but some aid agencies say more than 50,000 people have already returned to Iraq from Iran. Another 100,000-500,000 may return this year. People coming back now say up to 2 million may have fled in the 1980s and early 1990s - a number hard to verify because many documents were looted and burned a year ago, following the US-led invasion of Iraq. In addition, up to 1 million religious pilgrims from Iran may be in Iraq at the moment for the religious festival Ashura. “People have been abroad for so many years, they’re eager to come back,” Murad said. “Also, there is pressure from Iran. We have to find a solution for them.” However, finding a housing solution is more complex than it might seem at first. Aid agencies such as the US-based International Medical Corps and Italian-based Intersos are trying to assess how many people may return this year. US administrators recently announced they would build new housing in several different cities in southern Iraq. “There is no count of the spontaneous returnees,” Lina Mahmoud, a worker at Intersos, told IRIN. "We have been told that there are tens of thousands of people.” To address the fluid situation, Intersos plans to set up a border monitoring point manned by Iraqi police. Police will pass out leaflets telling people how to get an official passport, where they can sign up to get a food ration card, and how to deal with issues related to getting their land back if there’s a dispute, Mahmoud said. Many of the people returning may be coming back for political reasons, said Sebastian Pennes, an Intersos colleague. And many of them may not even be registered as citizens of Iraq or of Iran, since the former Saddam Hussein government often would confiscate documents. Some birth certificates and military service records still exist in Baghdad, but others do not, he said. “If I’m a Shi'ite cleric, and now I’m coming back to Najaf (a holy city to religious Shi'ite Muslims) it’s political, but it’s legitimate,” Pennes said. “It’s a Shi'ite trend.” The newly created Ministry of Displacement and Migration is also working on the returnee issue, but does not have specifics, according to workers there. Intersos also works with UNHCR to bring back registered groups of returnees on buses, usually about 1,500 people a week, said Pascale Marlinge, head of the Intersos office in Baghdad. Those people are registered in the southern city of Basra and given food and hygiene items. They often disappear into surrounding cities to stay with relatives and fix up their houses or build new ones, Marlinge said. Since 19 November 2003, 19 convoys of Iraqi refugees, totalling over 5,000 people, have returned to Iraq voluntarily with assistance from UNHCR, Enda Savage, the agency's regional repatriation coordinator, told IRIN on 23 March from Amman. But he stressed UNHCR could not assess the number of spontaneous returnees. Meanwhile, for the police, the large numbers of people moving across the border have brought additional problems. For example, some try to enter illegally and get killed or lose feet or legs in border areas heavily mined during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Commander General Abdulmuhan Abdul Razat told IRIN in Kut. “People trying to return have suffered a lot. Most had their houses taken by the ex-regime,” Razat said. “Some can get their houses back by making agreements with families who now live in them. But we really can’t help them.” Also, the border is completely open these days, Razat said - meaning that a great number of people are smuggling things back and forth, whether they’re Iranian businessmen, or returnees. In the past, an estimated 30,000 border police and others watched the 168 km long border of the southern province, he said. Now, only a few officials work at a remaining open border checkpoint. Bremer recently announced he would close 16 of 19 official border crossing points between Iraq and Iran to try to keep terrorists out of the country. “There is no security,” Razat said. “We used to have many army soldiers there and intelligence sources, security officials. Now, all we have are a few police officers.”

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

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