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Slowly, cautiously, Iraqi refugees returning home
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13:58, November 23, 2007

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Slowly, cautiously, but unmistakably, thousands of Iraqis who moved abroad to escape the violence are going home, stemming an exodus that has seen 4.2 million people leave since the 2003 war.

According to the Iraqi government, 46,000 returned from abroad to Baghdad in October - the first month of the new school year, though it has not produced a statistical breakdown.

Iraq's displacement and migration minister, Abdul Samad Sultan, said this week that 1,600 people were returning every day.

The UNHCR, the world body's refugee agency, said on Wednesday it could not confirm the figure because it has no permanent access to the border - though a day of monitoring suggested it could be true.

But a spokesperson in Geneva said: "For the first time Iraqis are actually discussing return, which was not the case a few months ago."

Baghdad is keen to highlight the numbers coming back, to demonstrate that the nine-month-old US-Iraqi "surge" to quell sectarian violence is working.

But the UN agency and the Iraqi Red Crescent both counted 2.3 million internally displaced people during September.

Both are skeptical about the figures from the government.

Iraqi officials say most returnees come from Syria, where an estimated 1.4 million refugees have fled.

Their return is attributed to a combination of improving security, especially in Baghdad, Iraqi official encouragement, and the unwillingness of Syria to continue to pick up the tab for an exodus which has put a huge strain on its resources.

Iraq's embassy in Damascus is reported to be offering free trips to those who want to go back.

Adnan al-Shourifi, the commercial secretary at the embassy, said the first free trip was scheduled for Monday, when a convoy of buses and an Iraqi Airways flight would ferry the refugees back to Iraq.

Having initially adopted an open-door policy for fleeing Iraqis, Syria has been imposing visa requirements since October.

Source: China Daily/Agencies

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