In Search of the Least Bad Option

Why are Iraqi refugees returning home from Syria?

DAMASCUS, Syria—If only Iraqi refugees were returning to their homeland because they believed it is now safe. If only the reported boom in crossings at the Syrian-Iraqi border really meant that relieved returnees were eagerly going home. Alas, while some Iraqis decided to end their forced exile this fall, their decision had at least as much to do with the deteriorating situation in their host country as with improved conditions in their homeland.

Iraqi clowns stage a performance. Click image to expand.
Iraqi clowns stage a performance

The phenomenon seems to affect only those Iraqis stranded in Syria. I spent most of November in the Middle East; among Iraqi refugees in Jordan and among the internally displaced Iraqis in semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, I did not encounter any traces of the “going home” mood that is palpable here in Syria.

The new dynamic was triggered on Oct. 1 by the Syrian government’s decision to reverse its hitherto generous policy of allowing all Iraqis to enter the country and stay for three months at a time, extensions possible, with no prior visa required. Under the new rules, Iraqis must apply for visas at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad or at the border; to qualify, the applicants must show that they are visiting Syria for academic or commercial reasons, that they have a medical referral, or that they are providing transportation services between the two countries. And, just as it is much harder to enter Syria, it is also much tougher to stay.

For many Iraqi refugees, the increased difficulties of remaining in Syria now outweigh the dangers of going back to a marginally safer Iraq. Refugees strive to avoid the least desirable situation. Staying in Syria has become more difficult for a number of reasons: economic considerations (lack of work permit, depleted savings), the problem of becoming “illegal” after residence permits expire, and even perceived hostility from Syrians whose hospitality may be wearing thin.

How many are going back? Solid data are impossible to obtain or verify. On Nov. 20, the Iraqi minister of displacement and migration told the BBC that 1,000 people were returning daily to Iraq. On the same day, the same minister told Reuters that this number was 1,600 per day. The Associated Press—citing a different source—claimed 2,000. Brig. Gen. Qassim Ata, the spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said 46,030 Iraqis returned in October alone, but it later emerged that everyone who crossed the border was included in this figure, not only returnees. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters in early November that 7,000 refugee families returned “due to the improvement in the security situation,” but he did not provide a time frame.

The data may be wobbly, but the intention is clear: As far as the Iraqi government is concerned, the more refugees come home, the better and more efficient it looks.

An Iraqi-owned barbershop in Damascus. Click image to expand.
An Iraqi-owned barbershop in Damascus

No effort is spared by Baghdad to reinforce the claim. A few days after several TV networks watched by Iraqi refugees in Syria ran an official Iraqi announcement that 1 million dinars ($800) would be given to every returned family, I saw notices posted in a bakery, at a barbershop, a carpenter’s workshop, and outside a travel agency in Sayyida Zaynab, a suburb of Damascus where mostly Shiite Iraqi refugees live. The flyers promised that the Iraqi Embassy would provide free road or air transportation to anyone willing to return.

Walking around Sayyida Zaynab with a translator, we chatted with about 50 Iraqis regarding their plans; they were shoppers, patrons, and owners of Internet cafes, teashops, mobile phone stores, restaurants, and hotels. Roughly half of them spoke about an “intention” to go back “one day,” but only a few felt they could safely do so now. Some were obviously drawn by the financial incentive and the prospect of free travel. Earlier that day I had met a group of 20 marvelously outspoken Iraqi women who were social outreach workers for an international organization. I asked how many of them had heard in the Iraqi communities around Damascus that the security situation in Iraq had improved. Four hands went up.

There is nothing wrong with a government offering assistance to its citizens to help them return home. There is nothing wrong, either, in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq offering the Baghdad government aid in “encouraging the momentum of voluntary and safe return.” But given that Iraqis escaping mayhem in their country have nowhere to go (now that Syria, the last safe haven in the region, is closing its borders to all but a chosen few), it is debatable how “voluntary” and “safe” those returns are.

Make no mistake: The best outcome for any refugee is to be able to make a voluntary and safe return home, but when the U.N. refugee agency says that it “does not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns,” one can only applaud and hope that the fate of people who have fled a country that is still dangerous will not be manipulated for political purposes.