Published on
The Financial Times/UK

Religious Divisions Deter Exiles From Returning

Andrew England

DAMASCUS - At the Al-Rawda café in the heart of Damascus two Iraqi brothers sit discussing the state of life in Baghdad.

the elder of the two, is in a bleak mood. He left for Syria in 1997,
has returned a handful of times since the US-led invasion and does not
like what he sees. Tahseen, 34, has a more nuanced approach. He was in
Baghdad when the first US soldiers set foot on Iraqi soil and sees some
signs of progress. Like Riad, however, he prefers to start afresh
outside Iraq and escape the dangers and frustrations of life in

Much has been made of improved security in Iraq since
former Sunni insurgents began working with US forces and Washington
increased its military presence. The handing over of Anbar province -
which borders Syria - to Iraqi security forces last month was a further
sign of progress.

But many of the estimated 1.5m Iraqi refugees
in Syria feel that much more needs to be done before conditions are
ripe for return. Sunni and Shia Muslims worry about Islamist
extremists, the atmosphere in Baghdad, where walls have been built to
divide religious groups, and the absence of basic services.

with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees say that the flow of
refugees entering Syria has declined, but few are asking for help to
return. Many do travel back and forth, returning to check on property,
for a relative's funeral or even to pick up a pension cheque. But what
they see does little to inspire confidence.

"We hear time and again that if they could go back they would," says Sybella Wilkes, information officer at UNHCR.

a Shia, used to paint portraits of American soldiers, charging $30 each
through a middleman who would bring him photographs to copy. But one
day in 2006, a gust of wind ripped open a newspaper hiding the
portraits he was carrying. Fearful that Shia Islamists, who regard
portraits as prohibited, had seen them, he left for Syria. He returned
to Iraq earlier this year to an improved security situation, but did
not see a future in a city. "I'm looking for a life," Tahseen says.
"Security felt more stable, but we feel bad when we go back and see
concrete [barriers] and soldiers in the street."

At another table
in the café, an Iraqi with a computer business in Baghdad's Karadah
district, mockingly says: "The good part of the story is you get
electricity for one hour." A Sunni, he lived in exile in Syria between
2006 and late 2007, when financial necessity forced him to return.

Iraqi refugees are not allowed to work in Syria, and UN officials and
Iraqis say many of those who return do so because their savings are
spent. Although Syria has been more welcoming than other states, Iraqi
refugees have been blamed for creating economic problems, with some
estimates suggesting they cost the country more than $1bn (€744m,
£580m) a year. Since August, there have also been reports of young men
being detained for working illegally, adding to the concerns of the
Iraqi community.

The man with the PC business says his problems
in Iraq are compounded by the fact that his wife is a Shia: "So we are
afraid to live in a Shia or Sunni place."

Still, he says the
situation in Baghdad has improved 60 per cent since last year. But this
prompts his Iraqi friend to interject. "That's in your neighbourhood,
not mine." The friend, another Sunni, moved to Syria after being forced
to leave his home in Sadr City, Baghdad's Shia dominated slum.

seem prepared to take desperate measures to win the chance of a new
life outside Iraq. A Christian couple seeking help at a UNHCR centre
said they had fled from Basra to Baghdad at the beginning of the war
after an Islamist destroyed their shop selling alcohol. After surviving
the worst, they were forced to leave Iraq a few months ago when their
21-year-old daughter was kidnapped by masked men outside a university,
they claimed.

Sitting in front of their two sons, they explained
that the kidnappers had demanded a $50,000 ransom. When the couple said
they could not pay more threats followed, so they fled, without their
daughter, to seek asylum in the west.

At least that is the way
they told it to the UN officials. But after checking their identity
cards, UN officials discovered the daughter's documents were fakes. The
entire story appeared to have been fabricated.


accounted for 12 per cent of all asylum applications lodged in
industrialised countries in the first half of 2008, the United Nations
high commissioner for refugees said on Friday, writes Reuters in Geneva.

19,500 Iraqis applied for asylum in wealthy countries during the
period, by far the top nationality seeking refuge abroad. The overall
number of Iraqis filing asylum applications continued to decline,
however, down 18 per cent from the last six months of 2007 and almost
10 per cent below the first half of last year.

Iraqis fleeing
violence or persecution typically head for neighbouring Jordan and
Syria for "initial protection, then they go north to Europe", said
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond.

Some 60 per cent of Iraqi asylum-seekers filed claims in only four countries - Sweden, Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands.


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