December 4, 2007

Hundreds A Day Returning To Iraq

The influx of former refugees into Iraq has reached a level that concerns the UN and the central government in Baghdad. Hundreds each day return from Syria and Jordan, enough to raise concerns about the "fragile" security in areas just now recovering from sectarian violence. The UN wants to start a returning-refugee fund to ease the transition:

Iraq's government acknowledged Tuesday that it cannot handle a massive return of refugees, as the U.N. announced a $11 million relief package to help the most vulnerable Iraqi families trickling back to their war-ravaged homeland.

The return of refugees is a politically charged issue in this country, where the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is eager to point to recent military gains against al-Qaida in Iraq and other militants as evidence that Iraq is now a relatively safe place.

But the U.S. military has warned that a massive return of refugees could rekindle sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites and that some returnees have found their Baghdad homes occupied by members of the other Muslim sect. "In reality, the ministry cannot absorb a return on that (large) scale," Iraqi Migration Minister Abdul-Samad Rahman told a news conference. "If the influx is huge, then neither the ministry nor the entire government can handle it."

At the same time, he appeared to take issue with U.S. and U.N. assertions that security remains too fragile for Iraqis to come home in big numbers. "I am not trying to defend the government or lure Iraqi families to come back, but we must tell the truth: the security situation is 90 percent stable," Rahman said. "The rate at which Iraqis are returning is not proportionate to the level of stability and security."

The people who fled won't generate the impetus for renewed sectarian violence. After all, they fled rather than participate in it, and they're not returning to take sides. However, their return could displace people who took over their property or apartments, and sectarian shifts in neighborhoods could create flashpoints when old residents return.

In fact, neighborhood security has driven the Iraqi call for their expatriates to come home. Iraqi society did not have the mobility of Western nations; people lived their whole lives in a neighborhood, and learned to trust and rely on their neighbors. The shock of losing that sense of community has helped bolster the feeling (and reality) of risk, and Iraqis see the return of their neighbors as critical to their own personal security.

Obviously, the reintegration of the expatriates needs careful management. However, this is a good problem to have at this point in time. It shows that Iraqis see a big improvement over the last couple of years, and as they return to their communities, they will eventually bring stability and a better sense of security to the nation.


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