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UNHCR warns against large-scale repatriation of Iraqi refugees
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09:32, November 24, 2007

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Amid media reports that thousands of refugees are going back to Iraq, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, warned on Friday that it was not yet time to promote, organize or encourage large-scale returns.

UNHCR believes that large-scale repatriation would only be possible "when proper return conditions are in place - including material and legal support and physical safety," the agency's spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.

She added that the security situation in many parts of Iraq "remains volatile and unpredictable."

According to a survey conducted by UNHCR staff in Syria, there are many reasons for refugee returns to Iraq other than considerations of improved security.

Most of some 110 Iraqi families interviewed said they were returning because they were running out of money and/or resources, they faced difficult living conditions or because their visas have expired.

As a result of recent visa restrictions, a number of Iraqis have been unable to shuttle back and forth between Iraq and Syria to get additional resources, make some money or collect food distributions or pensions.

The incentives offered by the Iraqi government of some 700-800 U.S. dollars to return home, as well as free bus and plane rides, have also played a role in rising returns.

The survey also highlighted that this was the first time in recent years that Iraqi refugees were discussing return.

Pagonis said UNHCR staff also did quick interviews with returnees in Baghdad, who cited economic difficulties caused by their long displacement as a major reason for going home.

Some were encouraged by the reports regarding improvement of security, but many expressed concern about longer-term stability, citing the fact that militias were still around and many areas remained insecure.

"Although we are not in a position to monitor borders on a 24-hour basis, we have noted more returns to Iraq than arrivals in Syria - with a fluctuating average of 1,500 departures to Iraq and500 arrivals in Syria per day," Pagonis said.

She said UNHCR could not confirm reports that 46,000 Iraqis returned from Syria in October.

According to government estimates, some 2.2 million Iraqis live outside Iraq with some 500,000-700.000 in Jordan and up to 1.5 million in Syria.


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