More Iraqis heading to Syria than returning home
Google News/AFP
February 6, 2008

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraqis are once again leaving Iraq for Syria in greater numbers than are returning, despite the lower level of bloodshed in their homeland, the UN refugee agency said on Wednesday.

A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, citing Syrian immigration officials, said that in late January an average of 1,200 Iraqis entered Syria every day compared with around 700 who returned.

Most of those Iraqis who return say they are doing so because their Syrian visas have expired or because they have run out of money, rather than because conditions in their homeland have improved, the report said.

"The UNHCR has observed that the return movement to Iraq that increased immediately after the imposition of new visa regulations appears to have subsided," the report, which was sent to AFP in Baghdad, concluded.

The figures angered Iraqi officials, who have pointed to a number of high-profile convoys of returning refugees as evidence that safety is being restored to their war-torn cities after a year of battles with insurgents.

Although there was no immediate official reaction to the report, a senior officer in Iraq's ministry of migration and the displaced, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, branded it as "incorrect."

"These figures have to be false," he said. "Syria no longer allows many Iraqis in and there has been an increase in the number of buses coming back. So I don't know where they could have got this from."

The United Nations estimates there are around 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria, including 153,516 who are formally registered as refugees from the conflict that has wracked the country since the US-led invasion of March 2003.

Most fled after the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006, which touched off a bitter civil conflict between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite sects and sent between 30,000 and 60,000 fleeing across the border every month.

Last October Syria tightened its rules for granting visas to Iraqi refugees, a move which dramatically reduced the numbers moving there and led to scenes of thousands of Iraqis boarding buses to head back to Baghdad.

"According to an Iraqi Red Crescent report issued in January 2008, some 46,000 refugees returned home from Syria between September and December 2007, a much lower figure than that given by the Iraqi government," the report said.

The Iraqi government had given a figure of 60,000 returnees and invited reporters to homecoming ceremonies at which officials presented the refugees with gifts and boasted of the achievements of the Baghdad security plan.

But according to a survey of refugees carried out by the UN refugee agency in Syria, 46 percent of those seeking to return said they could no longer afford to live in Syria and 25 percent had seen their visas expire.

"Most refugees interviewed do not agree with the idea that security has sufficiently improved in Iraq. Refugees discussing returning to Iraq cite financial pressures as the driving reason for return," the report said.

Majdolin, an Iraqi Christian who recently returned from a trip to Syria, agreed that the worsening situation for Iraqis there was the main reason why refugees are returning.

"The situation for Iraqis is very bad in Syria right now," she said, citing the cost of living and a crackdown by Syrian authorities on forged residency papers that Iraqis can buy for as little as 1,000 Syrian pounds (13 euros).

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