INTERVIEW-Iraq's returnee numbers unclear -minister

BAGHDAD, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Iraqi refugees, forced into exile by sectarian violence, are coming back home as security improves but the overall numbers are difficult to determine, Iraq's migration minister said.

Aid groups estimate two million people fled Iraq, mainly to Syria and Jordan, to escape savage sectarian violence that erupted following the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra two years ago. Another 1.2 million were displaced internally.

Iraq has been keen to trumpet the return of refugees as a sign that security crackdowns across the country are working.

Abdul Samad Sultan, the displacement and migration minister, said last year about 1,600 people were coming back to Iraq every day -- a figure aid agencies have disputed. Sultan now acknowledges the situation is not so clear.

"There are big indicators of families returning to Iraq, a large movement at airports and border checkpoints," Sultan said in an interview with Reuters.

"(But) we have no accurate numbers about the number of people displaced and returned to Iraq," he said, adding a survey was being planned with humanitarian group the International Medical Corps to produce detailed statistics.

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

Sultan said since last October there had been almost no new displacement, apart from in a few areas such as south of Baghdad and in the province of Diyala north of the capital where there had been military operations.

Most of those coming back were leaving Syria but the flow of people from Jordan had almost stopped, put off by a levy charged on over-stayers. Sultan said he was planning talks with the Jordanians to exempt Iraqis from the charge.


One of the worst homecoming surprises for returnees has been the discovery that their homes were occupied. Sultan said the government was starting to take action, with 1,000 such cases registered with the authorities.

"We are working to clear these houses without using force," he said, adding it was a tricky process as officials did not want to jeopardise moves towards reconciliation.

"The occupiers have no timetable to leave the houses and we are trying to find a peaceful solution to solve these problems."

Another issue thrown up by the sectarian strife has been the emergence of almost separate enclaves for Sunnis and Shi'ites as those from each sect fled previously mixed neighbourhoods.

"The problem now is to reintegrate the families with each other," Sultan said. "We are working with the municipal councils to create one community and get back to the situation before the displacement crisis and the sectarian violence."

While security has improved, aid agencies have cautioned it is too early to advise refugees to return.

Sultan said his ministry had its own financial woes. It has not had its budget approved, hampering projects and delaying some payments of $800 promised to returning families.

"Some people need money to repair their houses or at least to rent another house," he said. (Writing by Michael Holden, Editing by Dominic Evans)