Iraqi Refugees Still Too Scared to Return Home

The Iraqi government is in a hurry to get Iraqi exiles to come home. When I was in Damascus a few weeks ago there were big black banners on the Iraqi embassy advertising the government program "We will help you go back to your houses and you'll find out how much money you'll get when you register!"

Iraqi state television broadcasts emotional public service ads that reach into the Iraqi exile communities in Damascus and Amman. The campaign features a family just returned to Baghdad. A smiling policeman helps them carry the luggage into the house as the neighbors come to offer welcome. It is an idyllic scene, but Iraqi exiles are not convinced.

U.S. military officials and the Iraqi government claim the country is becoming a less dangerous place. For most Iraqi refugees, the upbeat assessments don't count for much. The judgment that matters is reports from the ground, families that say it's still not safe to return.

In November, Syria's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported 1.2 million Iraqis residents have valid visas. There are some two million Iraqi refugees scattered in the Middle East, also in Amman, Beirut and Cairo. Most have refused to take advantage of the Iraqi government's campaign because they are too traumatized, or too scared to return, or because they belong to a targeted religious minority. The Iraqi refugee crisis is far from over. The subject just doesn't make the headlines any more.

And that is a problem for the UN and the NGO's caring for this displaced population. The exiles are drawn from Iraqi's commercial and professional class as well as Christian minorities. They could support themselves in the first few years of exile, but most are sliding into destitution, and the UN warned in its latest report, "with no immediate prospect of Iraqi refugees massively returning to Iraq and the rising cost of living in Syria, pressure is mounting to cope with growing assistance needs."

I interviewed many Iraqi refugees in a two week trip to the region in October. I met Khadim al Zawi at a coffee shop in Damascus. Sixty years old, al Zawi, a charming retiree from Iraqi's Oil Ministry, told me he had fled Iraq in 2006 and despite the hard life in Syria, he has no plans to go home yet. "I left everything behind. I'm still scared," he told me. His cars have been stolen, his farm outside of Baghdad was still occupied by another displaced family who refused to leave. When I asked him about his Baghdad neighborhood he said his area was still a battleground between the Shiite militias and Al Qaeda in Iraq. "I will go home when the government has some control, when you can go to a police station. Now, nobody helps you." That minimum of safety was still far off. For now, al Zawi lives on his meager savings and waits. "I can survive, but it is hard and there is nothing nice in life on that money."

Since this crisis began, most of the media attention has been on resettlement, especially when the U.S. settlement numbers were dismally low. After a barrage of criticism by the media, humanitarian groups, and more quietly by the U.S. military, the number of resettlements is rising. The U. S. State Department exceeded the goal of twelve thousand Iraqi resettlements in 2008 and is expected to resettle more than thirteen thousand in fiscal year 2009. But even at this pace, the back log of cases will take twenty years.

For the Bush administration, the Iraqi refugee crisis was invisible because it didn't fit into the victory narrative for Iraq. Those days are now over and a more efficient resettlement process is in place. But there are many of Iraqi's educated middle class who are not asking for resettlement. They are waiting for a reasonable and safe future in Iraq. It is up to the new Obama administration to address the long term consequences of the exodus.

Deborah Amos reports on the Middle East for National Public Radio. She is working on a book on Iraqi refugees which will be published by Public Affairs in the fall of 2009.