BAGHDAD (AFP) — The United Nations is helping Iraq deal with problems related to the return of refugees, a UN official said on Tuesday, amid confusion over how many Iraqis are returning to their war-torn homeland.
"We are coordinating with the ministry of displacement and migration to see how we can assist," Said Arikat, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), told AFP.
On Monday, a source close to the UN said the world body had appointed a three-member team to handle the issue of returning Iraqi refugees.
The UN envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, had earlier told AFP the issue of refugees had to be handled cautiously "because the situation is extremely volatile."
Mistura met Iraq's Immigration and Refugees Minister Abdel Samad Rahman Sultan on Saturday and pledged UN support.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is preparing to provide "up to 5,000 families with material assistance including blankets, kitchen equipment and other material support to help in the returnees' reintegration in their communities."
But the actual numbers of people returning remain cloudy.
"We do not have figures of the returning families," Sattar Nowruz, spokesman for the ministry of displacement and migration, told AFP on Tuesday. "We don't have any idea."
Iraqi generals said on Sunday that large numbers of refugees were streaming back to their homeland, mainly from Syria, but did not specify how many.
The Iraqi transport ministry said on Tuesday a fleet of buses had been sent to Syria to pick up returnees and was expected back in the next few days. They would be escorted by the Iraqi military from the border to Baghdad.
On November 7, Brigadier General Qasim Ata, spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, said 46,030 people returned from abroad in October because of the "improving security situation," but since then there has been no official update.
Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman for the UNHCR, told reporters in Geneva on November 23 there was "no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable."
The UNHCR noted, however, that there were more returns to Iraq than arrivals in Syria, with a fluctuating average of 1,500 departures to Iraq and 500 arrivals in Syria per day.
The figures, however, do not distinguish between those who are crossing for temporary visits or who are leaving or returning permanently.
A survey by UN staff in Syria of 100 Iraqi families found that most of those returning do so because they are running out of money or resources or because their visas have expired -- rather than because of improved security.
Two families who have returned to Baghdad recently explained to AFP why they decided to leave Syria.
"Life was very difficult. We suffered severe shortages," said Abu Zainad, a 37-year-old Shiite who was driven out of his home in Baghdad's mainly Sunni western Al-Jihad neighbourhood five months ago with his wife and three children.
"We suffered far more than the people who stayed behind," Zainad said, adding that his wife had sold her gold jewellery to help them survive.
A restaurateur who fled to Syria after receiving death threats because he was serving Westerners said his visa was cancelled suddenly by Syrian officials after he became embroiled in a rent dispute with a Damascus landlord.
He is back in Baghdad because he has nowhere else to go, he said, asking not to be named because he still feared those who had threatened to kill him.
According to the UNHCR, 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since the US-led invasion of March 2003, including 750,000 who found refuge in Jordan and 1.4 million in Syria.
The latest Iraqi Red Crescent figures showed that the number of internally displaced people had grown to 2,299,425 people by the end of September, 16 percent more than at the end of August.
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