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Better security not why most Iraqis go home: U.N.

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Most Iraqi refugees returning home to Iraq from Syria are going back not because they feel their homeland is safer, but because they can no longer afford to live abroad, a U.N report has found.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report for February 2008 also said the flow of refugees back to Iraq from Syria had slowed after a sharp upsurge late last year and that more were leaving Iraq than coming home.

The Iraqi Red Crescent said last month some 46,000 refugees had returned to Iraq from Syria between September 15 and December 27, a much lower figure than that given by Iraq’s government.

In November Iraqi officials, eager to play up signs of improved security, said up to 1,600 were returning daily, with 46,000 estimated to have gone back to Baghdad in October alone.

“Most refugees do not agree with the idea that security has sufficiently improved in Iraq,” said the UNHCR report, seen by Reuters on Wednesday.

“Refugees discussing returning to Iraq cite financial pressure as the driving reason for return,” it said.

The report said UNHCR officials had carried out a sample of 110 Iraqis at a UNHCR registration centre in Damascus. Of those, 46.1 percent said they could no longer afford to live in Syria and 25.6 percent were returning because their visas had expired.

Of the rest, 14.1 percent “had heard that the security situation had improved and that they could go home”, it said.

“Most refugees interviewed do not agree with the idea that security has sufficiently improved in Iraq,” the report said.

Violence has fallen sharply across Iraq after a series of security crackdowns last year. The Iraqi government and U.S. military say attacks are down by 60 percent from last June.

The decline in conflict is credited to a “surge” of 30,000 extra U.S. troops and the growing use of neighborhood police units organized by mainly Sunni Arab tribal sheikhs who have turned against al Qaeda.

Some 2.2 million Iraqis have been forced into exile by violence between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

The Iraqi Red Crescent estimates between 1.5 million and 2 million went to Syria.

Migration watchdog The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said last month that internal displacement within Iraq had slowed but only a “minute percentage” of those abroad were returning.

Of the estimated 1.2 million displaced within Iraq, more than half plan to return to their homes and many of those coming back from abroad return to become internally displaced people.

Echoing other reports, the UNHCR noted a significant slowing in the number of Iraqis leaving for Syria since Damascus tightened visa requirements last year.

It said the daily average of Iraqis entering Syria from Iraq was more than 1,200 in late January, while fewer than 700 were returning each day, according to immigration officials in a refugee camp in Iraq’s western desert.

Baghdad newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche