BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraqi refugees are streaming back to their homeland, many to find their homes looted or damaged, Iraqi generals said on Sunday, adding that border congestion is throwing up new security challenges.
"We are receiving tremendous numbers of displaced families at the borders of Syria and Jordan," Major General Mohsen Abdul Hassan, head of Iraq's department of border enforcement, told a news conference in Baghdad.
Queues of vehicles at the borders transporting the refugees are creating problems for frontier guards trying to prevent the smuggling of arms, Mohsen said.
"We have difficulties dealing with the large numbers. There are long lines of vehicles," Mohsen said, adding his guards were already hard-pressed trying to intercept arms smugglers and insurgents attempting to cross into Iraq using forged passports.
Refugees crossing through the border posts were being subjected to intense searches, he added.
Iraqi government officials say thousands of families are heading back into Iraq, particularly from Syria, as violence levels drop in their homeland and attitudes harden in host countries.
An Iraqi official at Al-Walid border post between Syria and Iraq interviewed by state television Al-Iraqiyah said between 700 and 1,000 Iraqis are returning daily.
Only 100 to 200 people are crossing into Syria every day -- mainly for work -- as against the 1,000 or more who just months ago were fleeing the violence, said the official, asking not to be named.
Major General Adnan Jawad Ali, deputy commanding general of Iraq's ground forces, told the news conference that some refugees were arriving home, particularly to Baghdad, to find their houses damaged or looted.
The Iraqi military was deploying in areas where refugees were returning to provide security but it was up to the government, Adnan said, to deal with the problems of damaged or destroyed houses.
The United Nations, meanwhile, said the number of returning refugees had become a "flow".
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura met Iraq's Immigration and Refugees Minister Abdel Samad Rahman Sultan on Saturday and pledged UN support.
Mistura had "discussed with him the issue of United Nations assistance to the current flow of returning refugees and internally displaced people," a UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) statement said.
Meanwhile the UN refugee agency 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."
In Geneva, the agency said Saturday it "does not believe that the time has come to promote, organise or encourage returns" given the volatile and unpredictable security situation in Iraq.
"Presently, there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq," said UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis.
But US military spokesman in Iraq, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, said the reality on the ground was different.
"The UN has clearly recognised that there are returning refugees and that the numbers are significant -- the numbers of individuals returning to their neighbourhoods in Baghdad has been noticeable," he told the news conference.
More than 1.4 million Iraqis have fled to Syria since the US-led invasion of 2003, but they are coming under increased bureaucratic and financial pressure as the country's social infrastructure struggles to cope.
According to a survey released last Tuesday week by Norway's independent Fafo research foundation, around 500,000 Iraqis now live in neighbouring Jordan after fleeing the violence at home.
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