Originally posted July 2007

In the last months of 2007, tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees left Syria to return to their country. Whether they returned in Iraqi government-sponsored bus convoys or on individual journeys, some in Baghdad and Washington touted their move as a sign of success in bringing order to Baghdad and a vote of confidence by the returnees in Iraq’s safety and stability. Elsewhere, governments like Jordan and Sweden that had provided sanctuary to Iraqi refugees may have seen in the returns a signal that the time had come to begin compelling Iraqis to return, rather than providing them with asylum and assistance.

Yet in nearly all cases, the Iraqis who returned from Syria were, in effect, fleeing for a second time: this time from pressure that their reluctant host country brought to bear by tightening residence requirements, and under the burden of supporting themselves in Syria with little chance of employment and dwindling savings. Those who returned to Baghdad found a city carved into sectarian enclaves. Armed groups — some with a presence in Iraqi security forces, others erstwhile enemies and present allies of the US military — have redrawn the human map of the city. The violence in Iraq that spurred flight to Syria is down, but security arrangements intended to prevent its recurrence are tenuous and are staked on a project of political reconciliation whose success is uncertain.

In February 2008, Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 33 Iraqis who had returned from Syria to Baghdad in the last months of 2007. Their stories link two scenes of Iraq’s tragedy of flight: refuge abroad from the threat of sectarian violence and displacement at home with neither safety nor basic humanitarian needs assured. These stories also underline the need to address the crisis of refugees and the internally displaced — who together now comprise some 4.7 million Iraqis — as a matter of humanitarian and political urgency, rather than ignoring it as politically inconvenient in the narrative of a newly stable Iraq.

The returnees interviewed by Human Rights Watch resided in 18 separate areas of Baghdad; the majority had returned from Damascus and its outskirts within the previous several months. All but one respondent cited one or both of two principal reasons for returning: the effective ban on legal employment for Iraqis in Syria and a stricter residency regime introduced last year, when the number of Iraqis had swelled to as many as 1.5 million.

In early 2007, Syria, which has traditionally admitted nationals of Arab countries without visas, briefly stopped issuing the three-month entry permits that it had granted to Iraqis and replaced them with a document that could only be renewed after leaving the country. In October 2007, Syria began requiring Iraqis to enter with a visa granted for specific purposes, such as education or commerce.

Nearly all of the returnees who spoke to Human Rights Watch attributed the decision to flee Iraq in the first place to the surge of sectarian violence that had swept Baghdad following the attack on a Shi‘i shrine in Samarra in February 2006.

Firas, 37, a Sunni, fled to Syria in 2006 from a neighborhood that became heavily populated with Shi‘a, who were themselves fleeing Sunni militias in an adjacent district. The demographic transformation of the area and the presence of sectarian militias left men of the opposing confessional group particularly threatened. “My brother and I left after the Shi`i militias took control of the area,” he said. “We are Sunnis. A month after we left, my father, mother, wife, and child were all driven out.”

Husayn, a pensioner in his fifties who, along with his wife and six children, returned from Syria in December 2007 and now lives in a western Baghdad neighborhood, described the logic of his path from a predominantly Sunni part of that district, to Syria, then back and across a new internal border. “I rented in a Shi‘i neighborhood, closer to Shu’la (a Shi‘i area) because I’m Shi‘i, and it was the safest thing,” he said.

Like most of the displaced in Baghdad, Husayn sought safety through residence in a homogenous area, but said even that safety was relative and fragile: “There isn’t anywhere completely safe in Iraq,” he said, “and here on the ‘border’ we’re between the Shi‘i militia and the Sunni armed group.”

The majority of returnees assumed the status of displaced after finding their homes destroyed or occupied by others. Ali, 47, fled a mixed southern Baghdad neighborhood where warring militias targeted members of the group associated with their opponents in January 2007, moving with his wife and two children to Syria. They returned seven months later, renting in a predominantly Shi‘i area.

“We left after I was directly threatened by al-Qa‘ida, which took control of some of Saydiyya a bit at a time until they reached our area. I found an envelope in the house containing a bullet and a threatening letter,” he said. “I feel safer now, but I’m still slightly afraid of the snipers who target the area because it’s Shi‘i ... I can’t even think of going back; there’s someone from al-Qa‘ida living in my house now, and he’s joined up with the Sahwa [the US-funded Awakening groups].”

The phenomenon of return appears to have been short-lived; by May of this year, UNHCR estimated that slightly more Iraqis entered Syria each day than left for Iraq. But the prospect holds obvious appeal for the US and Iraqi governments: at a conference on Iraqi reconstruction in May, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed the importance of refugee returns. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose government organized some returns from Syria in 2007 with the lure of cash, spoke of future incentives to bring refugees back.

The accounts of the Syria returnees make it clear that conditions that would justify a call for returns are not in place. “Push” remains stronger than “pull;” Iraq remains incredibly violent by any standard other than one based on the carnage of its recent past, and no structure exists to meet the humanitarian needs of the current displaced population.

Until those conditions take hold, Iraq’s neighbors should refrain from forcibly repatriating refugees. Other countries, such as the United States — which has admitted only symbolic numbers of refugees despite its particular responsibility for their crisis — should admit substantially more refugees and increase financial support to Syria, Jordan, and other countries that have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis. And Iraq’s own government should start tending to the displaced population it has, and has done little to protect or assist, rather than making political gestures on the subject — and at the expense — of refugees.