iraqi refugees stranded when they return

Unprepared Government Strands Returning Iraqi Refugees

Published: December 20, 2007
BAGHDAD — The widow Hashim crossed the border into Iraq from Syria at dusk last month, heading homeward as the sun set behind her and the sky ahead grew dark.

Scott Nelson/World Picture News, for The New York Times

Maha Hashim shares her uncle’s two-bedroom apartment with her son Mahmoud and her three other children as well as other relatives.

Reach of War

Her dwindling savings had bought her family passage aboard a crowded bus, but there was no telling what awaited her at journey’s end. The only sure thing was that she would have to look for a new home and a job in a city starved for work and crudely reshaped by war.

Four weeks later, Maha Hashim is sharing her uncle’s musty two-bedroom apartment with her four children, sister-in law and four nieces and nephews, in the once tortured Baghdad neighborhood around Haifa Street. She has vowed not to stay long, but has no job and cannot afford an apartment of her own. Her husband, a policeman, was gunned down by insurgents in mid-2006 and her old house in south Baghdad was destroyed by a truck bomb. Her old neighborhood, Saydia, remains one of most dangerous in the capital.

“I loved Saydia but I can never go back, it broke my heart,” said Ms. Hashim, who is 40 and Sunni. “I need to get a job and a home, but how, and where?”

Tens of thousands of returning refugees face similar uncertainties throughout Iraq, where the government’s inability to manage the uneven reverse exodus has left the most vulnerable in an uneasy, potentially explosive limbo.

The government’s widely publicized plan to run free buses from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad was suspended after just two runs. Thousands of Sunni refugees are not getting aid because they fear registering with the Shiite-led government. While aid organizations are distributing emergency packets that include utensils, blankets and food, deeper structural issues, like securing neighborhoods, supplying housing or creating jobs, remain unresolved and largely unaddressed.

So far, just a fraction of the millions of refugees who fled from Iraq have come back. While the government trumpeted their return as proof of newfound security, migration experts said most of them were forced back by expired visas and depleted savings. Ms. Hashim, for one, pawned her wedding ring and gold jewelry to stay in Syria, but came back after her uncle’s visa application was denied.

The American military has expressed deep concerns about the Iraqi government’s ability to feed and house its returnees, or manage people who wish to reclaim their homes. It is widely feared that property disputes or efforts to return to newly homogenized neighborhoods could set off fresh waves of sectarian attacks.

For most Iraqi refugees, the trip home is just the beginning of their troubles. Many return to find their homes destroyed or filled with squatters, most of them displaced people themselves. But the government committee that decides property disputes is charged with hearing only cases that predate the invasion of 2003.

“We urgently need a plan, the whole government needs to be involved,” said Hamdiya A. Najaf, an official with the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration. Her ministry is overloaded with property dispute cases from Saddam Hussein’s time, when thousands were forcibly relocated. “We’re still working on the old problems,” she said. “We don’t have the mechanism to solve the new ones.”

The brewing housing crisis extends to millions who abandoned their homes but stayed in Iraq. In Baghdad alone, more than 300,000 people left one neighborhood for another, as Sunnis fled west and Shiites to the east, often moving into recently evacuated houses.

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