A crush of at least 20 men hold on to the bars at the immigration window at an Interior Ministry office in the al-Karkh district of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, jostling to apply for temporary documents showing they belong in Iraq. On any given day hundreds can be seen queuing up here with at east 100 applicants per day.
Omar Mohammed Rathi al-Saadi tried to hand over copies of his precious Iraqi identification card and a new passport-size photo of himself to officials. They are based inside the al-Karkh nationality and civil affairs department office of the Interior Ministry in the centre of the city near the heavily fortified region where US-led administrators work. “Please help me,” al-Saadi said in a pleading voice, “I have the correct documents.”
Al-Saadi told IRIN that he and his family were forced by the former Saddam Hussein regime to flee to Iran 15 years ago. He says he has managed to hold on to documents showing he was born in southern Iraq and that distant relatives can vouch for him.
Over 11,200 people returned voluntarily to Iraq, facilitated by the UN office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Ministry of Trade has registered some 130,000 people who returned spontaneously, however this figure cannot be verified.
Alarmed at the large numbers of unregistered people similar to al-Saadi’s family flooding into Iraq, officials are planning a census to try to get information on who they are. If all goes as planned, the census could be completed soon according to Hamdiya Najaf, deputy minister at the displacement and migration ministry, which was recently created by US-led administrators.
Under former president Saddam Hussein, census figures were heavily politicised. Saddam forced thousands of people to move to other places around the country under his “Arabisation” programme. Most often, military people favoured by the former Baath Party regime were given land and houses in northern Iraq, displacing others who lived there.
An estimated 1 million people may have been “internally displaced” by the Arabisation programme. Another 4 million Iraqis may be living illegally and legally in the European Union, Najaf said. European countries had been pressuring those people to return home, she said, but UNHCR has called on governments to refrain from doing just that.
"Our problem now is to make an accurate count, because our ministry is concerned with all kinds of refugees, from the Turkish and Palestinian refugees here to people coming home from Iran,” Najaf said.
Once the returnees are identified, officials will better be able to provide services and adequate accomodate for them, Najaf said. For example, new housing is planned in southern Iraq for internally displaced people. The Iraqi official said her ministry also wants to beef up health and education services in the south, depending on what the census shows.
“These people should prove that they are Iraqi,” she said. “It should not be easy to prove - there should be accurate checking.”
Immediately after the US-led invasion of Iraq in April 2003, refugees and others started coming into the country, Najaf said. About 50,000 of them registered, she said. Many of them were given temporary food ration cards and identification cards without showing proper documents to prove they were from Iraq, said First Lieutenant Neshat Rashid, an immigration officer working at the al-Karkh office.
While the interior ministry punished some officials for handing out the temporary cards last year, it has no way of tracking the people who received them, Rashid said. Families continue to receive a monthly food stipend with food ration cards issued under the Public Distribution System (PDS).
“We follow a procedure, but we don’t even have computers to check who has documents and who does not,” Rashid said. “This is important to interior security, so we want to prevent people from entering illegally from now on.”
A central foreign affairs office has a complete set of names and birthdays of people born in Iraq, Najaf said. For the last several months, anyone claiming to be from Iraq had to get the proper documents from that office, she added.
“It’s very easy to prove with relatives and this register,” Najaf said. “When a person gives his name, it’s very easy to check in the register.”
Meanwhile at the somewhat chaotic al-Karkh office, anyone without proper documents is now turned away, Rashid said. In the al-Karkh office alone, about 1,000-1,200 temporary documents are approved every day, most of them for people living in Iraq. Iraqis also come to the al-Karkh office and two others in Baghdad to apply for temporary travel documents, since virtually none were allowed to travel under the former regime.
“I want to take my wife and kids to Syria, to see the mountains,” Zia Tarek Khalid, 37, told IRIN. “It should be a wonderful experience.”
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