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Iraqi refugees still slow to return

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AMMAN, JORDAN -- The global economic downturn and Iraqi government incentives have persuaded hundreds of refugees to return home, but they are still only a trickle among nearly 2 million Iraqis who fled abroad in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The United Nations' refugee agency and the Iraqi Embassy here say returnees have been mostly those who couldn't afford to stay any longer in the Jordanian capital or in Damascus, Syria, where inflation has spiraled and legal employment is prohibited to Iraqis. Some refugees have used up their savings waiting for stability to return to Iraq or hoping for resettlement to another country.

"The Embassy of Iraq in Amman assisted some of the less fortunate, who exhausted all their financial resources, by providing transportation and a financial incentive of about $600 once they arrived in Iraq," said Mohammed al-Shaboot, a representative of the Iraqi Ministry of Immigrants and Migration.

Mr. al-Shaboot, who works at the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, said the program assisting returns was in effect from October to December 2008 and helped more than 600 people leave Jordan for Iraq. More than twice that number left Syria under a similar program, according to the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus.

"Its now stopped. We couldn't keep this assistance open forever," Mr. al-Shaboot said. The returnees traveled by bus or plane.

Mr. al-Shaboot said the embassy did not record whether the returnees were Sunni Muslims, Shi'ites, Christians or members of other religious and ethnic groups.

"We didnt ask these questions when they came. We just looked at their passports to ensure they were Iraqis, saw they had no capability to support themselves and were able and willing to go back," he said.

Mr. al-Shaboot added that some Iraqi professionals with financial resources of their own also have returned. But he could not provide any statistics.

"The security situation is improving tremendously day by day. So there is no reason for Iraqis to stay in Jordan, especially if they have lives, jobs and relatives to go back to," he said.

But some Iraqis who have returned say they have done so reluctantly.

"If I had more money, I would have stayed and never gone back," said Abu Hussein, a 32-year-old Shi'ite merchant, at the Cairo airport. "We hear from other returnees that they had regret going back because there is still bombing, kidnapping and killing."

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has assisted in the returns, expressed concern in a report released in November that "despite increased protection efforts, there were several episodes of violence targeting Baghdad returnees, including murders of entire returnee families . Some families were forced back into displacement out of fear."

U.S. military officials have described recent bombings and other attacks as last-ditch efforts by insurgents to ignite the kind of sectarian strife that saw Iraq nearly torn apart by a civil war in 2006 and 2007.

But with what many now see as an uptick in violence taking place in several parts of Iraq, most Iraqi refugees, if they can manage to do so financially, are staying put.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it has assisted about 780 people from Jordan and Syria who voluntarily chose to return to Iraq since October. However, the agency said it neither envisions nor endorses any wide-scale returns in the near term.

"People are not convinced of the sustainability of return. The majority of Iraqi refugees are waiting and seeing," said Imran Riza, UNHCR's representative in Jordan.

"Thats why theyre not definitively returning. The numbers are relatively low compared to traffic back and forth. So the people going back must have heard from relatives or others that there must be a chance," he said.

The United Nations said it has found that returnees most likely to remain in Iraq are those who have found employment.

According to U.N. statistics, more than 220,000 Iraqis who fled abroad or were displaced in the country after the 2003 invasion returned home in the last year. But the majority are from among the 1.6 million internally displaced inside Iraq, forced from their homes by sectarian and ethnic violence.

Mr. Riza said UNHCR and its partners provide some financial assistance to those Iraqis who are officially recognized as refugees. The coveted U.N. blue card is issued to family units, which receive the equivalent of $35 per month.

"What we try to ensure is that it is not push factors that are making them decide to go back. We have some safety net in terms of assistance for Iraqis in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt," he said.

There are far more Iraqis being resettled in third countries than those who return home, according to UNHCR. These are Iraqis whom the U.N. considers vulnerable, especially those who cannot go back to Iraq because of personal trauma or violence against their religious communities. Many left neighborhoods that have been often divided into sectarian enclaves.

About 8,000 Iraqis are expected to be resettled this year in the United States from Jordan and will be joined by an even bigger number of Iraqis sheltering in Syria, according to Mr. Riza.

The Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International said it did not anticipate large-scale voluntary returns of Iraqi refugees taking place "anytime soon."

"Many refugees will remain displaced for years. Therefore, relief activities will continue to be essential throughout 2010," said the report, released in October.

The group urged the United States to provide more financial assistance to U.N. refugee-related activities and to countries burdened by hosting the refugees. Both Jordan and Syria each spend an estimated at $1.5 billion per year on Iraqi refugees.

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