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Continuing a series, previous entry here.
As the rest of the world debates the "progress" in Iraq, displaced Iraqis are returning home. One might think that would be cause for hope leading to calls for support. If so, one would be wrong.
Back in October I attempted to explain what was going on in Iraq in as few words as possible. I was busy - there was a war still going on ("we've won" not being the same as "it's over") so it wasn't until November that I had time to offer further details. But around that time American media sources essentially confirmed what I was saying - they stopped covering Iraq in all but a cursory fashion. (The news coverage we'll be examining below comes from foreign sources.)
I'd actually had the sense that we'd tipped the scales a few weeks earlier, but was waiting for a non-violent end of Ramadan (generally a period of increasingly violent al Qaeda attacks in Iraq - if the group has any capability) to express the thought "out loud". It's likely that Iraqi refugees were awaiting the same signal - because at that point they began to return.
In subsequent months the status of the conflict in Iraq has been a topic of some debate among the (generally uninformed) American public, with an increasing number realizing what was rather obvious six months ago - at least to the refugees who'd fled Iraq in the violent months before.
Another bit of intel that should be obvious from that initial November report is that the United Nations was unprepared for their return. On one hand...
An Iraqi official at Al-Walid border post between Syria and Iraq interviewed by state television Al-Iraqiyah said between 700 and 1,000 Iraqis are returning daily.But in the same story, UN representatives outside of Iraq denied the situation altogether:
The United Nations, meanwhile, said the number of returning refugees had become a "flow".
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met Iraq's Immigration and Refugees Minister Abdel Samad Rahman Sultan on Saturday and pledged UN support.
In Geneva, the agency said Saturday it "does not believe that the time has come to promote, organise or encourage returns" given the volatile and unpredictable security situation in Iraq.The United Nations response to events would confuse anyone who wasn't aware of the organization's motivation on the issue (which we'll examine shortly). By the end of November, the group was insisting it was assisting Iraq with the return of refugees:
"Presently, there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq," said UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis.
But US military spokesman in Iraq, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, said the reality on the ground was different.
BAGHDAD (AFP) — The United Nations is helping Iraq deal with problems related to the return of refugees, a UN official said on Tuesday, amid confusion over how many Iraqis are returning to their war-torn homeland....even as agencies of the Iraqi government acknowledged they had no way of determining exactly how many were returning:
"We are coordinating with the ministry of displacement and migration to see how we can assist," Said Arikat, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), told AFP.
On Monday, a source close to the UN said the world body had appointed a three-member team to handle the issue of returning Iraqi refugees.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is preparing to provide "up to 5,000 families with material assistance including blankets, kitchen equipment and other material support to help in the returnees' reintegration in their communities."
"We do not have figures of the returning families," Sattar Nowruz, spokesman for the ministry of displacement and migration, told AFP on Tuesday. "We don't have any idea."That story also included statements from returnees that life for them in Syria was far worse than life in Iraq:
On November 7, Brigadier General Qasim Ata, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said 46,030 people returned from abroad in October because of the "improving security situation," but since then there has been no official update.
Two families who have returned to Baghdad recently explained to AFP why they decided to leave Syria.By early December, the Iraqi Red Crescent would offer a lower estimate of the number of Iraqis returning to their homeland:
"Life was very difficult. We suffered severe shortages," said Abu Zainad, a 37-year-old Shiite who was driven out of his home in Baghdad's mainly Sunni western Al-Jihad neighbourhood five months ago with his wife and three children.
"We suffered far more than the people who stayed behind [in Iraq]," Zainad said, adding that his wife had sold her gold jewellery to help them survive.
Between 25,000 and 28,000 Iraqi refugees have come home from Syria since mid-September, the Iraqi Red Crescent Organisation said Monday, confirming a growing trend but casting doubts on reports of mass returns.Any methods the Red Crescent used to derive their estimate were not provided in the story.
"In Iraq, the security situation improved as a result of law enforcement, especially in Baghdad and other governates," said the report, obtained on Monday by AFP.
Its numbers are lower than those given by the Iraqi government, which estimates as many as 60,000 refugees have made the homeward trip across the border in the past few months, mainly from Syria but also from Jordan, and that the numbers are growing by the day.
The government's method of calculating numbers of returnees has been questioned, amid claims by its political opponents -- which it vehemently denies -- that it is inflating the figures.
But this UN reversal of its statement from the week prior was:
The UN refugee agency has not been assisting in the operation and remains concerned about the situation in Iraq, it added.But the UN was able to claim contact with 100 refugee families in Syria - and offered a slightly modified version of earlier complaints regarding conditions there:
The UNHCR, meanwhile, said in a statement on its website that a survey in Syria of 100 Iraqi families found that most of those returning do so because they are running out of money or resources or because their visas have expired.(Again - more on the UN's motivations to follow.)
Only 14 percent of Iraqi refugees are returning because of improved security conditions, it said.
"Around 70 percent say they are leaving because of tougher visa regulations and because they are not allowed to work and can no longer afford to stay in Syria," the statement said.
But by early January, the Red Crescent would increase its estimates dramatically:
Around 20,000 Iraqi refugees returned home from Syria in December, suggesting an improved security situation in the country, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent.And (assuming they were actually deployed) the UN's three-man aid crew was having a tough go at trying to get its own head count:
The independent organisation said in the report, obtained by AFP on Friday, that 45,913 people returned to Iraq from Syria between mid-September and December 27, more than double the figure reported a month ago.
Of these, 38,736 had returned to Baghdad and the remainder to other provinces, it said, adding the number of internally displaced in Iraq fell by about 10,000 people in November.
The news comes after US military commanders said on Wednesday that the number of attacks across Iraq had fallen by 62 percent following a US troop "surge" and the formation of scores of anti-Qaeda groups.
"The situation seems to have improved relatively and that has encouraged some Iraqi refugees to come back to their country," the report said.
The UNHCR says it is proving difficult to determine exactly how many Iraqi refugees are returning home.But days later, another look at the situation for Iraqis in Syria was detailed here:
The Syrian government does not allow the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria to work legally and an increasing number of refugees have taken up "harmful practices," from prolonged fasting to prostitution, in order to survive.But note the "UNHCR said staff in Syria had received reports that 128,000 Iraqis were recorded as leaving", though they'd been able to contact only 754 families for a survey - out of an "estimated 1.5 million Iraqis in Syria".
"People are finding themselves in extreme situations and at the worst end we're seeing child labor, early marriage, and survival sex," said Sybella Wilkes, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Syria. "This is something that these families would never have resorted to in Iraq. They're facing drastic measures in order to keep some semblance of quality of life."
According to the latest survey by the UNHCR of 754 Iraqi families in Syria, 33 percent say their financial resources will last for three months or less, while 24 percent are relying on remittances from family abroad to survive.
Some refugees are choosing not to stick it out.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have returned from Syria since mid-August, though the figures are disputed. The UNHCR said staff in Syria had received reports that 128,000 Iraqis were recorded as leaving, though figures from the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization released on Dec. 3 said between 25,000 and 28,000 Iraqi refugees had come home from Syria since mid-September. Initial Iraqi government figures said up to 60,000 had returned.
Iraqi children have in particular borne a disproportionate burden of the harsh economic reality. The United Nations Children's Agency (UNICEF) estimates that 80 percent of Iraqi children in Syria do not attend school and that at least 10 percent of Iraqi children are being forced to work for an average daily income of $1 or less.
Precise statistics on Iraqi employment and "harmful practices" are impossible to compile because of the ban on Iraqi employment, as well as the fact that there are no significant social networks running through the Iraqi refugee community through which to gather information.
By February, the UN claimed once again it would begin working with the government of Iraq - and might even move (or had moved) some representatives into the country:
The UN refugee agency said Saturday it has boosted its international presence in Iraq and will intensify its efforts to support the war-torn country's two million internally displaced people.However, by April the UN was able to locate and interview 1,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria and declare no problem:
It will also work with the Baghdad government to prepare the return of millions of refugees from abroad, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres said.
He said the number of international staff in Baghdad will be increased from two to five and the country representative moved to the Iraqi capital from Amman.
29 April 2008 –Only 4 per cent of Iraqi refugees currently plan to return to their own country, while almost all have fled their homeland because of direct threats or general insecurity, according to a report out today from the United Nations refugee agency.Unfortunately, about the only obvious conclusions that can be drawn from the above collection of stories are:
The survey was carried out with nearly 1,000 Iraqis refugees in the Syrian capital, Damascus, at UNHCR’s registration and food distribution sites, as well as in community centres or during home visits.
The number of Iraqi refugees can not be reliably determined.
The number of refugees returning can not be reliably determined.
Conditions for refugees in Syria are worse than (or as bad as) what they face in Iraq
The UN has no idea if it is (or even should be) doing anything about the situation or not.
But within days the New York Times had broken the news of an event to the American public - and other news agencies would follow.