BAGHDAD (AFP) — Between 25,000 and 28,000 Iraqi refugees have come home from Syria since mid-September, the Iraqi Red Crescent Organisation said Monday, confirming a growing trend but casting doubts on reports of mass returns.
"In Iraq, the security situation improved as a result of law enforcement, especially in Baghdad and other governates," said the report, obtained on Monday by AFP.
"Consequently, a significant number of externally displaced returned to Iraq starting mid-September and through October ... The flow of returnees gradually decreased during November," said the Red Crescent, offering the first independent assessment of the reverse migration trend.
Its numbers are lower than those given by the Iraqi government, which estimates as many as 60,000 refugees have made the homeward trip across the border in the past few months, mainly from Syria but also from Jordan, and that the numbers are growing by the day.
The government's method of calculating numbers of returnees has been questioned, amid claims by its political opponents -- which it vehemently denies -- that it is inflating the figures.
Of the returnees, the Red Crescent estimates that 19,000 to 21,500 headed to Baghdad and between 6,000 and 6,500 to Iraq's 17 other provinces.
"Hundreds of displaced families arrived daily through air as well as ground travel," the statement said.
However, the number of those returning is still only a trickle, if that.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since the US-led invasion of March 2003, including 750,000 who found refuge in Jordan, 1.4 million in Syria and about two million elsewhere in Iraq.
The UNHCR has cautioned that it believes the security situation in Iraq is not yet stable enough to encourage a mass return of refugees.
The Red Crescent report said that some of the refugees had returned to find their homes occupied, leading to an increase in the number of internally displaced people in Baghdad in September and October. It did not give figures.
The Red Crescent said its teams collected the data from transport companies and relevant ministries and government departments.
The UNHCR, meanwhile, said in a statement on its website that a survey 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.
Only 14 percent of Iraqi refugees are returning because of improved security conditions, it said.
"Around 70 percent say they are leaving because of tougher visa regulations and because they are not allowed to work and can no longer afford to stay in Syria," the statement said.
The UN refugee agency has not been assisting in the operation and remains concerned about the situation in Iraq, it added.
"The UNHCR is not in a position to recommend return at this time but recognises the Iraq government's effort to support people who are returning," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR representative in Syria.
Iraqi and US commanders attribute the sharp drop in sectarian violence to a surge in US troop numbers, the formation by ordinary Iraqis of anti-Al-Qaeda fronts and the decision in late August by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to call a halt to the activities of his Mahdi Army militia.
Last week, the Iraqi government laid on a fleet of buses to fetch Iraqis from Damascus, which returned to Baghdad with around 375 refugees. Each family was given a sum of one million dinars (800 dollars) to assist their resettlement.
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