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Iraqi refugees flee war-torn Syria and seek safety back home

News Stories, 18 June 2013

© UNHCR/N Prokopchuk
Zeinab (left), her daughters and grandchildren fled to Syria 10 years ago to escape sectarian violence in Iraq but are back in Basrah because of heavy fighting and increasing violence against women in Syria.

BASRAH, Iraq, June 18 (UNHCR) Fifty-five year-old Zeinab and her daughters Maha, Suad and Zahra* sit on the floor of the small run-down house they rent in central Basrah. The women smile but their eyes convey sadness and anxiety.

Over the past decade, Zeinab and her family were displaced twice, fleeing for their lives. Sectarian violence forced them from their native Iraq to neighboring Syria in 2003. Ten years later, the peaceful Damascus suburb that had sheltered Zeinab's family and thousands of other Iraqi refugees became a battleground; the women had no choice but to return home.

Violence against women is part of the wider Syrian war, a sad reality that Zeinab and her daughters saw first-hand when they received threats and suffered intimidation. When their close female friend and neighbor was kidnapped and killed, the women decided to flee.

"That was the last straw," said 27-year-old Maha. "We were afraid to leave our house, we were so scared. And in addition, we lost our jobs and had no income. We did not have a man in our family to protect and support us."

UNHCR does not promote voluntary repatriation to Iraq because security in many governorates remains volatile. However, in less than a year, since June 2012, the violence in Syria has prompted more than 50,000 Iraqi refugees like Zeinab and her family to return home. Once back in Iraq, many live in poor conditions due to the shortage of housing and high rents. Some 65,000 Iraqi refugees still live in Syria, experiencing hardships of the war as much as the nationals.

The family's journey back to Iraq was full of danger. The women travelled with their children in a truck from Damascus to the Iraqi border, usually at night to avoid being seen. "We travelled in absolute darkness, through deserted villages and destroyed towns," recalled Zeinab. There was no electricity, no lights on the road. We could hear the sound of shelling and explosions."

The family entered Iraq through the Al Waleed border check point and then made their way south by bus. The women felt safe only when they arrived in Basrah, where they found a house to rent in their native neighborhood. While the family felt happy to be back, restarting from scratch is never simple. And it can be doubly difficult for a female-headed family to survive in this part of the world without the support of a male bread-winner.

"First I felt stressed and frustrated because we had a good life back in Syria, where we were registered and protected by UNHCR; UNHCR gave us a job at a sewing factory. We were working and were in control of our life. But with the war the factory was closed," recalled Maha.

"My sister, Zahra suffers from a chronic heart problem," she continued. "In Syria, she had regular treatment at a UNHCR-supported hospital. Here, in Iraq, she has been waiting for an appointment to see a doctor for two months. The public health system is overstretched and we cannot afford a private doctor."

UNHCR provides assistance to the most vulnerable returnees to help with rent, food and essentials. However, when UNHCR approached this family to assess their needs, the women did not ask for any assistance. What they wanted was a job.

Head of UNHCR field office in Basrah Roupen Alexandrian says some 600 refugee families returned to Basrah in the past months. "Cash assistance is only an immediate, short-term measure, while ultimately we support the reintegration in their native communities through self-reliance and income generation programmes."

Maha gives lectures on religion and history at public gatherings, but this does not bring a stable income. So she has submitted a plan to start a small business under a UNHCR programme designed to support returnees like Maha with employment and income-generating activities.

UNHCR Representative in Iraq Claire Bourgeois says the country is trying to cope with huge numbers of uprooted Iraqis, including internally displaced people and returnees, and her office, in close collaboration with the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, is doing its best to help them under very difficult conditions.

"Iraq struggles on a number of fronts," Bourgeois said. "In addition to over one million internally displaced people, there are nearly 160,000 Syrian refugees. At the same time, Iraqi families are returning in large numbers from lengthy exile in Syria. They need help to reintegrate and we strive to reach them with assistance, wherever security allows us to do so."

By Natalia Prokopchuk in Basrah, Iraq

* names changed for protection reasons

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Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

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After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

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The UN refugee agency has launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its work helping hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The new appeal concludes that unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region. The appeal notes that the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR has warned that the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

The US$60 million will cover UNHCR's protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non-Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

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