02/07/2008, 00.00
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UN: More fleeing Iraq than returning

A report from the UNHCR denies the figures of the Iraqi government on the number of refugees returning from Syria: there are 1200 per day who cross the border, compared to the 700 who return. 46 percent of those who come back to so for economic reasons, and 25 percent because they cannot renew their residency permits. And for the religious minorities, above all the Christians, thinking of coming back is like "going toward certain death".

Damascus (AsiaNews) - The Iraqis continue to flee toward Syria, and the number of those who cross the border is much greater than that of those returning home.  The motives of those who decide to come back, moreover, are not connected to an improvement in security, but mostly because of the expiration of residency permits and economic difficulties.  These are the findings of the latest report from the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) on the numbers on Iraqi emigration into Syria.  The result of the study clearly contradicts the scene depicted by the Baghdad government, according to which a drop in the number of attacks and the level of insecurity is bringing thousands of refugees back home each month. 

The report of the UNHCR, previewed yesterday evening by Agence France Presse, speaks of an average of 1200 Iraqis per day who are entering Syria, compared to about 700 who return.  The data, which refer to the end of last January, have not yet been commented upon officially.  But anonymous sources at the Iraqi emigration ministry immediately called them "false".  Already in January, however, the Red Crescent had revised the figures on the number of people returning provided by Baghdad: 46,000 between September and December of 2007, compared to the official figure of 60,000.  A survey conducted by the UNHCR in Syria now reveals that 46 percent of those returning do so for economic reasons, and 25 percent because  they cannot renew their residency permits. 

Among the refugees, moreover, the ones who show themselves more willing to return are the Muslims (Sunni or Shiite, depending on their region and neighbourhood of origin), a few Chaldean families recount from Damascus.  "For the Christians, the Yazidi, and those who work for Western countries or for the U.S. forces", the sources continue, "returning to Baghdad, Mosul, or Samarra means going toward certain death.  We do not have any area where we can consider ourselves safe". A 30-year-old Syro-Orthodox woman recounts with tears in her eyes: "Next week I need to return home to Mosul, because the Syrian authorities in Damascus have not allowed me to renew my residency permit: I have no family, I am not sick, none of my relatives has been killed by terrorists, so I am not considered to be in danger in Iraq.  But I would do anything to avoid leaving; they are looking for me in Mosul, they know who I am and are threatening to kill me only because I worked for the United Nations". 

According to estimates by the UNHCR, since 2003 Syria has received 1.4 million Iraqis.  Of these, 80 percent live in Damascus.  There are about 60,000 Christians overall, and the Chaldeans are the largest group.  According to data from the Chaldean archdiocese of Aleppo, there are about 7,000 families concentrated just in the capital and the surrounding villages. 

The rate of Christian emigration from Iraq has become a real and proper "exodus". Benjamin Sleiman, Latin archbishop of Baghdad, spoke in just these terms in an interview with "Terrasanta", the magazine of the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Land.  The prelate recounts that "the situation of the Iraqi Christian population is that of a community that has lost faith in its own country".  Even the exodus toward the more peaceful northern part of Iraq conceals great difficulties, the archbishop continues: "The Christian villages in the north lack infrastructure and industrial, commercial, or small business ventures". So there is more security, but the unemployment rate is still high. 

And members of the Yazidi minority are already planning to leave from the north. Kayiri Shankali, director for Yazidi affairs at the ministry of religion of the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, has stated that more than 200 families have been forced to leave their homes in order to avoid facing new terrorist threats and attacks, carried out with the aim of frightening the inhabitants and taking over their property, which mainly consists of land holdings.

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