The Iraqi Red Crescent reports a drop in the number of registered displaced persons entering the country from more than a 100-thousand in October to less than three-thousand in December. Previous estimates put the number of Iraqis returning home since September at 45-thousand. Most analysts say these numbers vary and cannot be verified because many returnees do not register with aid agencies.
Recent figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimate that less than 700 Iraqis returned home from Syria every day in late January. A daily average of 12-hundred Iraqis left the country during the same period. Baghdad says the number of Iraqis leaving the country cannot be higher than the number of returnees, because Syria has tightened visa restrictions.
Syria, according to the United Nations, is hosting around one-and-a-half-million Iraqi refugees out of more than four-million displaced people around the world.
Kathleen Newland of the Washington-based, non-profit Migration Policy Institute says many Iraqis are reluctant to return, despite the improved security atmosphere in Iraq.
"The word gets back from people who have returned that the conditions are very difficult. Some of the refugees will be able to go back to their own houses or to neighborhoods that are occupied by people of their own religious conviction," says Newland. "But about 70 percent of them have not been able to get back into their own houses because they have found them occupied by other people, and it is going to take a very long time to sort that out. So Iraq is just not ready for large-scale returns."
Surveys done by the United Nations and several aid agencies show that many Iraqis return because they have exhausted their savings. Once they return, however, they often find their old neighborhoods redrawn along sectarian lines, as Dana Graberladek of the International Organization for Migration in Jordan points out.
"People are not able to return to their neighborhoods because their neighborhoods have become homogenous. They were forced out because of their religious sect and now they can not return to their actual home because they do not feel safe because it is no longer a mixed community," says Graberladek.
A somewhat stabilized security situation allowed Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration to encourage repatriation in November and December. The ministry offered registered refugees about $800 to help them resettle in Iraq and the parliament recently increased that amount.
The Role of Government
But the Migration Policy Institute's Kathleen Newland argues that the government is no longer encouraging large-scale returns.
"Before very many people had returned, the Iraqi government said to the ministry and to agencies assisting refugees in Syria to stop these organized returns because the Iraqi government just could not handle them," says Newland. "They were afraid that a large number of returnees might destabilize the situation if they try to get back to their houses that are occupied by others and that people would come back because of a monetary payment to a situation that really is not safe for them."
That view is shared by Eric Gustafson, Executive Director of the non-profit Education for Peace in Iraq Center, which is based in Washington. He says Iraq still does not have the necessary infrastructure to support large numbers of returnees.
"We are seeing some steps like the distribution of oil revenues start to move in the right direction. But there are still a lot of roadblocks in terms of getting the resources out to the communities. A lot of Iraq's government ministries operate as the personal fiefdoms of whatever political party has that ministry and not truly operating on a national level," says Gustafson.
Returning Iraqis often face a shortage of housing and basic services, and residency restrictions in most governorates. Displacement specialist Dana Graberladek of the International Organization for Migration says those who have nowhere to go take residence in empty buildings or live in boxes on the street. Those who can, stay with relatives or rent.
"Those who are able to return to their homes return to the same conditions that all Iraqis are now facing: insecurity throughout the country, a lack of employment, a lack of access to medical services because there has been a flight of medical professionals. Many of the health centers and hospitals do not have the equipment and the medicine, overcrowded schools for those areas that have experienced an increase of internal displacement," says Graberladek.
Graberladek says the international community should do more to help Iraqi refugees, either by providing more support to host countries or by granting asylum to more refugees throughout the world.
Political scientist James Hollifield of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, says it is important for the international community, and particularly the United States, to move swiftly to contain the Iraqi displacement problem, which has become one of the world's largest.
"If the U.S. is unable to stabilize Iraq, we may see a Vietnam-like scenario where some future U.S. administration makes the decision based on the moral responsibility that the U.S. has in this crisis and opens the door to millions of Iraqi refugees in the same way that we saw an opening of the door to millions of Vietnamese refugees in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon [in 1975]," says Hollifield.
If allowed to fester, Hollifield says the Iraqi refugee crisis could destabilize the region and undermine U.S. policy.