More Iraqi Refugees Returning from Syria

Iraqi refugees wave from a bus as they return to Iraq from Syria. i

Iraqi refugees wave from a bus as they return to Iraq from a suburb of Damascus on Nov. 27. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Iraqi refugees wave from a bus as they return to Iraq from Syria.

Iraqi refugees wave from a bus as they return to Iraq from a suburb of Damascus on Nov. 27.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
Iraq Struggles to Cope with Returning Refugees

There is much uncertainty and possibly danger awaiting the refugees and internally displaced Iraqis seeking to return to their homes in Baghdad. The Iraqi government appears to have no real plan to deal with the problem.

A couple waits to sign up for a bus to Iraq. i

Sabah Abdul Qadir (left) and his wife Ibtisan Hussein Ali sign up at an Iraqi-run office to get their names on a list for the next government-sponsored bus convoy from Damascus to Iraq. A convoy has not been scheduled. Nezar Hussein for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nezar Hussein for NPR
A couple waits to sign up for a bus to Iraq.

Sabah Abdul Qadir (left) and his wife Ibtisan Hussein Ali sign up at an Iraqi-run office to get their names on a list for the next government-sponsored bus convoy from Damascus to Iraq. A convoy has not been scheduled.

Nezar Hussein for NPR
Iraqi refugees line up at a center in Damascus to receive U.N. food aid. i

Iraqi refugees line up at a center in Damascus to receive food aid from the U.N. on Monday. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Iraqi refugees line up at a center in Damascus to receive U.N. food aid.

Iraqi refugees line up at a center in Damascus to receive food aid from the U.N. on Monday.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
A man unloads food aid for Iraqi refugees at a U.N. center in Damascus. i

A man unloads food aid for Iraqi refugees Monday at a U.N. center in Damascus. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
A man unloads food aid for Iraqi refugees at a U.N. center in Damascus.

A man unloads food aid for Iraqi refugees Monday at a U.N. center in Damascus.

Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time since the Iraq war began, more Iraqi refugees are returning home from Syria than are arriving. The movement is still a trickle, considering there are more than 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.

But growing numbers of refugees are considering going home — either because they believe security conditions have improved or because they have run out of money.

At the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, families come every day hoping their government will finance another convoy of buses from the Syrian capital to Baghdad. Adnan al Sharify, who organized the first convoy last week, says there are no plans yet for another. But he is convinced that security in Iraq has improved so much that all the refugees will return home soon.

"For sure — absolutely — this is the beginning of the whole solution," he says, adding that the day is "really close" when all Iraqis will return to their homeland.

While Iraqi officials highlight security improvements, interviews with Iraqi refugees reveal many are going back because it is too difficult to stay in Syria.

In October, Syria made it harder for Iraqis to enter the country. About 1,000 return to Iraq every day, but at least 500 cross into Syria daily — running from kidnappings, bombings or personal threats.

Falah Jaber, an Iraqi sociologist, says that those who have been personally targeted by violence will be the last ones to consider going home.

"What we have seen this far is just a trickle," he says. "We have one and a half million [Iraqi refugees]. The return of 30,000 is not yet a pro-return case."

In Damascus, more than 50,000 Iraqi refugees need food packages to survive and many come to a U.N. distribution center for help. Officials with the U.N. Food Program project the number will grow to 100,000 by the winter.

"We need to help them, and it's not become less, it's becoming more," says Laurens Jolles, who heads the U.N. refugee office in Damascus. "So this is a time to gear up and try to do more. But on the other hand, you have persons who wish to make us believe that the situation is improving and that thus there is no need for that anymore. And I think there is the real danger."

Iraqis still sign up at the refugee office daily. With a U.N. ID card they are eligible for monthly food rations and blankets for the winter ahead. One woman in line, who would not give her name, said her family came to Syria because her sons were targeted by militants. But she can't work here and is running out of options.

"No job," she says. "We lost our job in Iraq, and here [there's] no job."

Asked if she would go back to Baghdad, she replies, "No, I can't."

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