23 November 2007Responding to recent public reports about refugees returning to Iraq in limited numbers, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today cautioned against an organized effort to send civilians back to the war-ravaged country. “We welcome improvements to the security conditions and stand ready to assist people who have decided or will decide to return voluntarily. However, UNHCR does not believe that the time has come to promote, organize or encourage returns,” agency spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a press briefing in Geneva. “That would be possible only when proper return conditions are in place – including material and legal support and physical safety,” she said, pointing out that there is currently “no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable.” UNHCR staff in Syria who surveyed over 100 Iraqi families said most of the refugees report that they are returning because they are running out of money and/or resources, face difficult living conditions, or because their visas have expired. Recent visa restrictions are preventing a number of Iraqis from shuttling back and forth between Iraq and Syria to get additional resources, make money or collect food distributions or pensions. The incentives offered by the Iraqi government of some $700-$800 to return home, as well as free bus and plane rides, have also played a role in returns, according to the UNHCR survey, which noted that Iraqi refugees are discussing return for the first time in years. Returnees in Baghdad, interviewed by the agency’s staff, cited economic difficulties caused by their long displacement as a major reason for going home. “Many had run out of or nearly depleted their savings. Some returned as it was the last chance to get their children back into Iraqi schools before the end of the first term,” said Ms. Pagonis. “Some were indeed encouraged by the reports regarding improvement of security, but many expressed concern about longer-term security, citing the fact that militias are still around and many areas remain insecure,” she added. “People have mainly been returning to areas where they feel that local security forces are working properly and are maintaining control.” Although the agency cannot monitor borders full-time, it has noted more returns to Iraq than arrivals in Syria, with a fluctuating average of 1,500 departures to Iraq and 500 arrivals in Syria per day. Inside Iraq, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) increased slightly over the last few months, Ms. Pagonis said, citing figures received by UNHCR from its partners estimating that over 2.4 million Iraqis are displaced inside Iraq. “Reasons for the increase include better registration of the displaced, but also recent visa restrictions in Syria, which meant more people moved inside Iraq rather than seeking refuge outside,” Ms. Pagonis said. Some displaced people are returning home, in part because of financial incentives. Displaced Iraqis say access to shelter, food, work, water/sanitation and legal aid remain the most common needs. According to government estimates, some 2.2 million Iraqis live outside Iraq – with some 500,000 to 700.000 in Jordan and up to 1.5 million in Syria.