Iraqi Refugees Attempt to Return to Native Land

Millions of Iraqis have become refugees because of the ongoing war. The United Nations estimates the number to be more than 2.4 million. But with the security situation in Baghdad improving, many Iraqis are now attempting to return home, despite being urged not to. Sybella Wilkes and Anita Raman, both of the U.N., explain challenges faced by Iraqi refugees.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now, we want to turn our attention to another international story. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than two million Iraqis have left Iraq since the start of the war. Most have fled to Syria and Jordan.

In October, the Syrian government quietly closed the border. Some Iraqis are now returning home. But their return is not without its own problems.

Two experts closely following the plight of the refugees are Sybella Wilkes. She's spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency. She joins us on the phone from Damascus, Syria. And the U.N.'s Anita Raman, who's speaking to us from Oman, Jordan.

Welcome. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SYBELLA WILKES (Spokesperson, UNHCR Damascus Operation): Thank you.

Ms. ANITA RAMAN (Spokesperson, UNHCR Iraq Operation): Thank you.

MARTIN: Anita, first to you. Do you have any idea how many Iraqis have returned home from Jordan and/or from Syria in recent weeks?

Ms. RAMAN: Movements out of Jordan has been slight over the past several months. However, since August, through the Al-Waleed crossing, 31,222 Iraqis have returned, not including movements in the month of October. So yes, there has been a considerable movement in.

MARTIN: And is there any sense of why they're going home? Are they leaving because conditions at home are better? Or are conditions in their host countries becoming less welcoming? Like, for example, in Jordan, can they get work permits? Do they receive any sort of support? Or is it all just a matter of friends and family?

Ms. RAMAN: Conditions for inside Iraq have improved, particularly, within particular neighborhoods in Baghdad. However, the circumstances on the ground do remain volatile. And the time has not yet ripe to say that it's conducive to mass movement and mass return.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, Sybella, tell me about it. In Syria, for example, can refugees from Iraq, can they get work permits? Are they receiving any form of sort of formal support from the government? Or is it a matter of relying on, you know, friends and relatives already there?

Ms. WILKES: It's very, very difficult for an Iraqi to get a work permit. And for many Iraqis - we did research earlier this year in May, and 80 percent of the refugee families that we interviewed said that they would be running out of savings around this time. And we're also hearing from family abroad that increasingly, they're actually running out of savings. They've been supporting their Iraqi relatives in Syria and Jordan for some time, and they actually - they're running out of resources to continue doing that.

MARTIN: So people in third countries, for example, if there are family members in Europe or in the United States, they're sending money to Syria and Jordan to help their relatives there.

Ms. WILKES: Exactly, exactly. We actually found 67 percent of the families we interviewed were receiving support from family abroad.

MARTIN: And do they not get any support from the government? Is there any…

Ms. WILKES: Well, actually, the Syrian government, on a daily basis, supports every single refugee that's here. Because of the way that the economy functions, virtually everything is subsidized, so electricity, water, food, fuel, everything is subsidized and heavily subsidized. So it's already having an enormous cost on the Syrian government. In addition, all public schools are open and free of charge and many health facilities are made available so I think the Syrian government in terms of its support has already done an enormous amount and we also have a program set here in Syria and we're already supporting tens of thousands of refugees on food aids and we're increasing the financial support. However, we recognize it isn't enough. Just today, we got confirmation that we're going to be able to expand the food support already to 128,000 people in January and we hope to double that within 2008.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense, - and I know this is difficult how the Syrian population is viewing the refugees - and I just - it's a lot of people to come to a neighboring country in a relatively smaller amount of time and I understand that you said that the Syrian government has done quite a lot to help. But do you have any sense of just how regular people feel about the refugees in their midst?

Ms. WILKES: Certainly, they're feeling the pressure. Their schools are very crowded. I think everybody has security on their minds. I think just basic things, like services, trash collection, for example. Some of these areas where there are hundreds of thousands of refugees living, the - all of the services are overwhelmed - trash collection, the water supply has been affected. So the Syrian neighbors have definitely felt it.

MARTIN: So now, some of the Iraqis are starting to go home. What are you hearing about the conditions when they do go home?

Ms. WILKES: Well, we have tried to follow some of these refugees but, in fact, it's been very, very difficult to follow them. First of all, refugees who'd hope to be able to go home and actually haven't been able to go home and some research with another NGO is that she found that only around 30 percent has actually been able to go home. The rest are about to go somewhere else because either their home was not in a safe state or their home was not in a safe area where they could go back to. So this has made some of the contacts that the refugees have given us quite difficult to reach. One of the things that we feel very strongly is that we're not in a position right now to recommend return to Iraqis. And simply because we're not able to follow up, we're not able to go and monitor ourselves to make sure that a situation is safe.

MARTIN: Anita, you know I wanted to ask you. I'm sorry, I forgot. But there has been a very great deal of internal displacement within Iraq, particularly since 2006. Is the U.N. in a position to help these people or is that considered a responsibility of the Iraqi government?

Ms. RAMAN: Primary responsibilities for the Iraqi internally displaced persons (unintelligible) with the government of Iraq. However, the UNHCR, as part of the U.N. country team for Iraq, has been supporting the governments since February 2006 when street level violence became very common in Iraq's major areas. We've seen 1.2 million persons displaced. This comes in addition to a previous 1.2 million from prior stages of the current conflict as well as historic human rights abuses.

MARTIN: Anita, what about in Jordan? Do the Iraqi refugees there have any opportunities to work? Are they also mainly living on savings and support from family?

Ms. RAMAN: Iraqis and Jordan do receive support to basic services, government services, but are as well facing the income pressures mentioned by Sybella and the Syrian contacts.

MARTIN: And Sybella, I understand that there are some fear among Iraqi refugees in Syria that they might be kicked out of Syria once their visas expire. Is that a real concern or is that just a rumor sort of sparked by the anxiety that people have?

Ms. WILKES: We've certainly received reassurances from very high levels that no one will be deported and this has been the facts up to this point. So, and in those cases where people, when they've been unsuccessful in having their visa renewed and they've had an exit stamp in their passports, actually, every case that we've come across and we have been presented ourselves to the immigration has succeeded in getting a one to three months visa extension so that's positive. And we've also seen…

MARTIN: But that must be nerve-wracking.

Ms. WILKES: It is nerve-wracking.

MARTIN: I mean one to three months is not a lot of time to move an entire family to sort of consider your future.

Ms. WILKES: No. In fact - the thing is this is a situation the refugees have been under. They've had to renew their visas every three months now, in some cases, took for years, and it is nerve-wracking. And certainly, we've heard from some refugees they made their decisions go back because they found that so nerve wracking, not knowing what the future is going to hold.

MARTIN: Sybella, finally I wanted to ask you and I know it's a difficult question, particularly given that we're talking about over a million people who were - from Iraq who are in Syria maybe - well, a million and a half. But do you have any sense of their state of mind as a community? Do you have any sense of whether they are, as a group, hopeful as a group, anxious as a group? Do they want to stay in Syria? Do you have any sense of that?

Ms. WILKES: We've registered over 100,000 people since the beginning of the year, and one in five of those people are victims of torture or violence in Iraq. And it's such a high number that we actually recently commissioned the Harvard's trauma survey, because this seems to be informing many aspects of their lives in the way that they're living their lives. It means that they're not, often not sending their children to school and that the children have also been involved in traumatic incidents. And that, as a community, they need to mend their support, both medical support and psychological support. So it means that they are a very vulnerable population that does need support. And does look to us for guidance. And it means that they're not necessarily ready to go back to Iraq.

MARTIN: All right. Sybella Wilkes is spokeswoman for the United Nation Refugee Agency. She joined us on the phone from Damascus, Syria. We were also joined by Anita Raman of the U.N. agency's Iraq operation. She joined us on the phone from her office in Amman, Jordan. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WILKES: Thank you.

Ms. RAHMAN: Thank you.

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