BAGHDAD (AFP) — Around 20,000 Iraqi refugees returned home from Syria in December, suggesting an improved security situation in the country, according to the Iraqi Red Crescent.
The independent organisation said in the report, obtained by AFP on Friday, that 45,913 people returned to Iraq from Syria between mid-September and December 27, more than double the figure reported a month ago.
Of these, 38,736 had returned to Baghdad and the remainder to other provinces, it said, adding the number of internally displaced in Iraq fell by about 10,000 people in November.
The news comes after US military commanders said on Wednesday that the number of attacks across Iraq had fallen by 62 percent following a US troop "surge" and the formation of scores of anti-Qaeda groups.
"The situation seems to have improved relatively and that has encouraged some Iraqi refugees to come back to their country," the report said.
The Red Crescent said there were almost 2.18 million internally displaced people in Iraq as of November 30, compared with almost 2.3 million at the end of September.
The figure represents 344,236 families, with 58.7 percent of the total number being children.
Despite the marginal improvement in the situation, the Red Crescent said, the plight of the displaced remains dire.
"They are suffering from many serious hardships such as lack of accommodation and high rentals, inadequate health services, a large number of students have left their studies while many displaced people have lost their jobs and it is hard for them to buy food or fuel," the report said.
The Red Crescent's numbers are lower than those given by the Iraqi government, which estimates as many as 60,000 refugees have made the homeward trip, mainly from Syria but also from Jordan.
However, the number of those returning is still only a trickle.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced since the US-led invasion in March 2003, of whom 750,000 went to Jordan, 1.4 million to Syria and about two million sought refuge elsewhere in Iraq.
The UNHCR says it is proving difficult to determine exactly how many Iraqi refugees are returning home.
"Currently, the UN refugee agency is not promoting returns to Iraq," it said in a statement on its website.
"Many areas are still considered unsafe and conditions are not conducive for return. There is a general lack of access to material, legal and physical safety and proper services, such as drinking water, sanitation, food, shelter, health services, education, access to land, recovery of property and employment opportunities."
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