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Iraqi refugees in Syria reluctant to return

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Iraqi musician Abdel Razaq al-Ghazawi, who sought refuge in neighboring Syria from his country’s raging conflict, returned home last year after hearing about a fall in the violence.

Within weeks, disillusioned by Iraq’s continued insecurity and what he saw as creeping intolerance, he crossed the border back to Syria where he scrapes a living as a refugee.

“I found out that security has not improved enough. The spread of religion has also made life intolerable,” said Ghazawi, who trained as an orchestra conductor in Britain.

“Artists and intellectuals no longer have a place in the new Iraq,” said Ghazawi as he waited for his turn to collect rice and flour rations at a United Nations center.

Ghazawi was one of millions who fled the upheaval ushered in by the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The bulk of them went to Syria, which took in over a million Iraqi refugees, and Jordan, where up to 700,000 fled.

The U.S.-backed government in Baghdad has called on those refugees to return and says most of them have already done so.

But many are reluctant to go back and the numbers of returnees may not be as high as Iraq estimates.

Adan al-Sharifi, commercial attache at the Iraqi embassy in Damascus, said there were only 400,000 Iraqis left in Syria. Syrian government figures show 1.1 million Iraqis in Syria compared with 1.4 million before residency requirements were introduced in 2007.

“There is greater mobility and probably a large number has gone back, but people are keeping their options open and very sizeable numbers of Iraqi refugees remain in Syria,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees representative in Syria.

“Many people have gone through very traumatic experiences. Not everybody can go back to their lives in terms of living in the same neighborhood or house,” Jolles added.

He said more refugees could go back if the Iraqi government accelerated compensation for the returnees and access to their property. UNHCR has also advised the Iraqi government to establish one special agency to deal with the returnees, instead of the present myriad of departments.

Jolles said the number of Iraqis registered in Syrian schools fell sharply over the past year to 30,000, but refugees registered with UNHCR have grown steadily to over 224,000. Many others remained in Syria but were reluctant to sign up.

REGIONAL TENSIONS

The refugee issue has deepened regional tensions, with Damascus saying the Iraqi government has done little to help its own citizens abroad.

The incomers have raised pressure on Syria’s infrastructure, but also contributed to a consumer and property market boom.

Sharifi played down tensions, saying the number of refugees returning to Iraq was easing the pressure on their hosts in Damascus. Some of those who have not returned were waiting for the end of the school year, he added.

“There was a big movement back last year and we are expecting another big push after this school season ends.”

Diplomats and international aid officials say returnee volumes are difficult to pin down and point out that the numbers crossing into Iraq daily roughly equal those exiting the country through border points with Jordan and Syria.

“Talk of a massive return is a bit exaggerated. I would call it slow and steady, which is better and more sustainable than a rush,” said Rafiq Tschannen, Iraq chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration in Amman.

Tschannen said a large proportion of Iraqis who have gone back did so because they ran out of money or had their hopes of re-settling in the West dashed, with Western nations still accepting only a limited number of refugees.

The United States has been especially criticized for not taking in enough refugees. But Washington, which has downgraded its diplomatic ties with Damascus, has kept a line of communication open with Syria about the refugees and a U.S. official visited Damascus to discuss the issue.

A European diplomat said it was unusual for whole families to return to Iraq, with sectarian tensions still running high, but the breadwinners are going back and forth more frequently.

Around 60 percent of the UNHCR registered refugees are Sunni Arab, a minority that controlled the political system before the U.S. invasion removed Saddam Hussein from power.

The Shi’ite ascendancy since has done little for Khadijah Khudeir, a Shi’ite women who fled Baghdad’s Saidiya district.

“My house was taken over and I really don’t know by which militia. My late husband was a Sunni but there is no longer religious harmony in society,” she said.

Bashar Jaljees, a Christian merchant from Kirkuk, saw his shop being blown up by what he describes as Kurdish militia. Now he is trying to adjust to life in Syria, where Iraqis are officially banned from work.

Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen have been embroiled in a frequently violent dispute over control of Kirkuk, a center of oil output.

Jaljees does not think of returning and points to recent local elections in Iraq that were not held in Kirkuk as evidence of the level of danger in the city.

“The government had done nothing to stop Kirkuk from exploding,” he said. “I don’t want to be there when it does.”

At a suburb of Damascus where Iraqis first fled, residents say there are noticeably fewer refugees. Some went back but others relocated to cheaper housing in slums of the capital.

“You used to hear Iraqi accents in the street and think you were in a Baghdad. It is less now,” said Abou Tarek, a real estate agent.

Additional reporting by Caroline Drees; Editing by Dominic Evans and Richard Balmforth

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