Thousands of Iraqi refugees returning from Syria will face huge challenges reintegrating into a country with high rates of unemployment, dismal basic services and ongoing sectarian strife.
“I think we will face a humanitarian crisis regarding this issue,” said Yaseen Ahmed Abbas, the president of the Iraq Red Crescent (IRC). “You should expect pressure on everything in Iraq by having such a large number of people in a short time. It’s not easy.”
More than 15,000 Iraqis have returned to Iraq in the past nine days, after unprecedented fighting in the Syrian capital Damascus, according to Deputy Minister of Displacement and Migration Salam Dawod Al Khafagy. The government evacuated 4,000 by air, he said; the rest crossed by land. Tens of thousands of others have returned since the Syrian conflict started in March 2011.
Elham was one of them. After seven years in Syria, she and her son returned on 3 July to Iraq, where she says she has nothing: “I am like a stranger here.”
After a few nights in a hotel, her money has run out and she is now staying with friends, she told IRIN. Her family home, abandoned years ago, then occupied, and now empty, is “not fit for living”, she says, and she has no capital to rebuild it. Her parents have since died and transferring the home into her name is another hurdle, she said.
She applied for the four million dinars (US$3,400) granted by the Iraqi government to returnees, but was told it would be more than a month before she received it.
The threats that drove her out of Iraq years ago linger with her; she fears leaving the house: “The security situation here is bad.”
She has a hard time envisioning her future in Iraq.
“Until now, I am lost. I don’t know how I will manage.”
Capacity to respond
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), she is not alone.
“Most of the people have lost everything and came with very little,” said Aurvasi Patel, assistant representative of UNHCR in Iraq. “It’s going to be a huge burden on the state.”
UNHCR staff on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border have found some returnees lacking documentation, including cards giving them access to the government’s public distribution system and their national ID document (`Jensiya’); as well as shelter, food and cash.
Iraq’s government initially said it could handle the influx, but is increasingly asking for help.
“The number of people coming is increasing by the day. We need support,” Deputy Minister Al Khafagy told IRIN.
He chairs a new committee set up to coordinate the response between various ministries and international organizations. Rich with oil revenue, the government has also promised his ministry 50 billion dinars ($43 million) to respond to the crisis, but it has yet to be transferred from the Ministry of Finance, he said.
Until then, the Ministry of Displacement and Migration will use its own funds to prioritize grants to those Iraqis returning unexpectedly in the last week due to the fighting in Damascus, he added.
But even before the influx, the government had proven unable to quickly disburse the returnee grant, Patel said, “so for a bigger return group like this, it is inevitable that the delays are going to impact them.”
UNHCR is planning to give out emergency cash grants of $400 per family to try to tide them over.
At the local level, governorates also have large budgets to work with, as well as a network of governorate-level emergency cells that have been trained to deal with such emergencies, said Daniel Augstburger, Chief, Humanitarian Affairs Office of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq.
But the government’s procedures are slow, bureaucratic and inefficient, aid workers said.
“Where we may face a problem is the speed with which the government will respond. But the capacity is there,” Augstburger told IRIN.
Both UNHCR and the IRC will soon begin detailed surveying to better understand the needs of the returnees.
IRC is assisting those who come through the border, and will soon start registering returnees in their places of origin in order to better assist them. But Abbas said the Society has been overwhelmed by refugees arriving just as Ramadan food assistance packages are being sent out.
“IRC will respond to immediate needs. But for the long-term, we cannot meet the needs. It will be a burden on the Iraqi economy. We expect [the returnees] to suffer for a time.”
What they really need, Abbas said, is a sustainable source of income.
Unemployment in Iraq stands at 8-11 percent, with youth unemployment twice as high, according to the UN’s Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit. Most Iraqi returnees do not have the capital to start their own businesses, Abbas said. Even before the current influx, returnees were having a hard time integrating, many of them dependent on outside assistance to survive.
IRC recently began a programme to fund small businesses, and plans to extend it to returnees. But more is needed, Abbas said.
There is one mitigating factor: Many of the refugees who have returned were slated for resettlement abroad. One of UNHCR’s priorities is to register them and try to continue the resettlement process from Iraq, Patel said.
But, in addition to the returnees, nearly half a million people displaced by the 2006-7 conflict are still living – illegally, under threat of eviction, and with inconsistent access to basic services and few livelihood opportunities – in urban settlements across Iraq. The government has struggled to find long-term solutions for them.
Its challenges are compounded by nearly 2,350 Syrian refugees who have also crossed into Iraq in the last week, many of them squatting in empty public buildings along the border until camps are erected to house them.
“We are not prepared,” Abbas said of the refugee response. “It was a sudden decision by the government to allow in the Syrian refugees [Syrians fleeing the conflict in Syria to become refugees in Iraq] without any preparation.”
At al-Waleed border crossing, a camp set up for Syrians fleeing Syria (where there were some tensions in 2004) still stands, and UNHCR is revamping it in case of need. At al-Qa’im, the government and IRC have already started erecting tents. The third border crossing, al-Rabi’a, remains closed on the Syrian side, Patel said.
Another 8,000 refugees from Syria have already been hosted in the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.