Iraq Refugee Returns Fell in 2010: UNHCR
BAGHDAD (AFP) -- Fewer Iraqis displaced inside and outside the country returned to their homes in 2010 than in the previous year, largely as a result of Iraq's prolonged political deadlock, the UNHCR said on Friday. The UN refugee agency said in its December 2010 statistical update that a total of 118,890 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons returned to their country and homes, a 40 percent drop compared with 2009. "It was a year on hold," Daniel Endres, Iraq representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told AFP by telephone. "People wanted to wait and see a bit -- before you take such an important decision, you want to be sure" that the situation in the country is stable, he added. According to UNHCR figures, the number of Iraqis returning to their home country peaked in March, with a total of 17,080 returns in the same month Iraq held its second parliamentary polls since dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted. No other month saw more than 12,000 returns, with total figures declining monthly from August until December, which registered just 6,640 returns. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki finally ended the protracted political stalemate that followed the elections by forming a national unity government on December 21. But Endres said it was still too soon to tell whether the formation of a new government had an impact on the number of Iraqis returning home. "We cannot say that yet, but an inclusive government could be a reason for them (refugees and internally displaced persons) to come back," he said. He noted that, according to UNHCR surveys conducted with Iraqi refugees overseas, political instability was the main reason they did not want to return to Iraq, followed by a lack of basic services and tenuous security. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said during a visit to Baghdad on Monday that unemployment and socio-economic problems were the biggest barriers for Iraqi refugees who wanted to return home. "More important for many of the people we talked to than the security concerns that still exist is this lack of (economic) opportunities," he said during a news conference in the Iraqi capital. According to the UNHCR figures, half of the total returns in 2010 were recorded in Baghdad province, while around a third were in the restive ethnically mixed central province of Diyala. A total of 26,410 Iraqis, meanwhile, left the country to go into exile last year, including 10,925 to Syria, 6,285 to Iran and 3,480 to Jordan. Among those who left in large numbers were Iraqi Christians, seeking to flee violence that has targeted them in recent months, most notably in the siege of a Baghdad church on October 31 that left 42 worshippers and two priests dead. The International Organisation for Migration said in mid-December that it recorded 894 Christian families leaving their homes in Baghdad and Mosul to go to majority-Christian localities in north Iraq, in particular the autonomous Kurdish region which is more secure than the rest of the country. The UN refugee agency said on Monday it estimated there were around 1.3 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, including 500,000 living in "extremely precarious conditions." While the UNHCR currently does not give figures on the number of Iraqi refugees abroad, it said in 2008 that it estimated around two million people had left the country, principally to neighbouring Syria and Jordan. Around 196,000 Iraqis are currently registered with the agency in those two countries and Lebanon.