140,000 Iraq refugees return: good news or bad news?

140,000 Iraqi refugees returned home between June and October, and nearly 200,000 for the whole year through October. According to which source you read, this is good news or bad news. Liz Sly’s article in the Chicago Tribune is headlined Iraqi refugees mostly stay away.  The subhead is “Despite increased security, few risk going back home.” It opens:

Retired army officer Ali Dawood Salman moved back to his majority Shiite street in the much troubled neighborhood of Ghazaliyah in October, two years after he fled for his life. Five days later, a hand grenade was tossed over his wall.

“They were trying to scare me,” he said in the front yard of his home, which he refuses to leave a second time. “But I’m not afraid. I’m strong.”

Not all Iraqis are quite so fearless. A year after the U.S. military’s surge strategy began to calm the sectarian violence that had raged in Baghdad’s neighborhoods, the vast majority of those who fled still have not gone home, despite strenuous government efforts to persuade them to do so.

 It takes a few paragraphs to get to the rarity of such incidents.

Though violence against returning refugees is rare, it does occur, said Col. Bill Hickman, who commands U.S. forces in northwestern Baghdad, where some of the worst sectarian violence raged. The U.S. military counted three to four killings of returnees in his area of command, among more than 2,000 families who returned there in September and October.

Hickman went on to say the U.S. military considers the return of refugees a priority, necessary to establishing a stable society. The article then tells a negative anecdote about a returnee, says the UN is not encouraging mass returns, and ends with a positive anecdote about a Sunni man who moved back to his neighborhood that had become wholly Shia. He received a warm reception from his neighbors:

“They were the same, but better,” he said. “They said, ‘You are more than welcome here,’ and every day for a week families brought me breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

On the other hand, CNN reports U.N. gears up for return of displaced Iraqis, a piece containing similar news about the 140,000 returnees, but with a positive slant. It opens:

The U.N. refugee agency is expanding its presence in war-torn Iraq to help accommodate thousands of displaced people, many of whom believe it’s getting safer and easier to return to their homes in once-perilous neighborhoods.

And the positive attitude is coming from the top.

Although the return is a trickle compared to the few million who remain displaced inside and outside Iraq, [UN] High Commissioner António Guterres said the homecoming is “an encouraging sign.”

“It is clear that the security situation has improved,” Guterres said in an interview from Geneva, Switzerland.

Almost all the returning refugees are internally displaced people, an important fact the Tribune article omitted.

The UNHCR is to open four more provincial offices in Iraq next year, giving the agency bases in 14 of the country’s 18 provinces, and it is doubling its Iraqi budget operations to $81 million. More than 100 staffers — local and international — will be involved with the Iraqi government in helping citizens return to their homes.

One key aspect aiding the return is that Iraqi security forces are evicting squatters from peoples’ homes, said Guterres, who stressed that the agency isn’t pushing Iraqis to return, but wants to support those uprooted people who choose to go back home.

The UN’s attitude has changed from pushing resettlement of the refugees in third countries. As recently as October, the UN was claiming that more people were leaving Iraq than returning, while the Iraqi government claimed vastly more people were returning.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the number of people leaving the country is now relatively small. “We’re not seeing large outflows of people going to neighboring states like we once did,” he said.

“It needs to be stressed that a primary concern for refugees outside Iraq remains the security situation, but for those who are getting help from host countries and from the United Nations, they may for the time being feel safer and better off elsewhere,” he added.

But Redmond said the return of some Iraqis illustrates the “increasing confidence that it is possible to go home.”

“Once you get that sort of momentum going, you will see more and more refugees going back.”

This is quite a change from the UN’s attitude a few months ago, when it seemed convinced that all the refugees, at least the external ones, would have to be resettled elsewhere.  As I said repeatedly, so much of the problem is providing housing and settling property disputes. That’s now the UN policy, apparently.

His agency is working with Iraqi authorities to help people get their dwellings back or find another place to live, and with access to food, health care, education and proper housing. They hope to help citizens cut through government red tape and return to normalcy.

Guterres said the return process will be arduous. Re-integrating people into their homes will take time and will need to be accompanied by an economic recovery process, he said.

One challenge is finding “an effective mechanism of property compensation” for people who have lost their homes in the war and can’t get them back.

The UN is showing more sense than the NGOs; see for example Ann’s recent post, Refugees International: Tell Obama to resettle 105,000 Iraqis into US. It’s good to see the UN doing something positive, and I hope the news that it’s working on resettling the refugees in Iraq gets out to the NGOs.

And on the Tribune’s attitude that the returning refugees are only a tiny sliver of the total number, can you imagine what the story would be if many more were returning? I can see the headline: “Returning refugees overwhelm resources in Iraq, create more misery.” It sounds as if the UN and the Iraqi government together are developing an infrastructure to help the refugees and solve the property problems, and once that is established the rate of return will increase.

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