BAGHDAD: It’s easy to identify the Iraqis fleeing the violent uprising in Syria as they arrive by bus in Baghdad.
They’re the ones carrying a sad array of worldly possessions: blankets and mattresses tied with cord; TVs and curtain rods; boxes once filled with food from the U.N.’s refugee agency now packed with clothes and baby toys.
“It is better to die in our own country than to die abroad,” said Zeena Ibrahim, a 33-year-old pregnant mother of two.
She returned with her husband from Damascus, where they have lived since 2006. Her husband used to be in the Iraqi Army, and after receiving repeated threats and attending funerals almost daily for fellow soldiers, the couple decided to flee to the safety of Syria.
Now that haven is gone. And as uprisings and revolutions sweep the Middle East, many Iraqis are beginning to return home.
It is a development that says just as much about the improving security in Iraq as it does about the deteriorating conditions in countries that used to be stable.
More than 850 people have been killed in Syria as the regime of President Bashar Assad has cracked down on a popular uprising that began in March. Although Iraq still has its share of bombings and shootings, it is nothing compared with 2006 or 2007, when bombings were a daily occurrence and death squads tortured people with electric drills.
“No doubt Iraq’s situation now is better than the situation in several countries in the region and this has encouraged some Iraqis to return to their country and enjoy some peace,” said Salam al-Khafaji, Iraq’s deputy migration minister.
How many will come home remains to be seen and is likely dependent on just how bad things get in the region – especially in neighboring Syria, where many Iraqis had fled.
The movement is raising concern among Iraqis about how the newcomers will affect the country’s economy and still shaky relations between Sunnis and Shiites.
Iraq has seen waves of outward migration beginning with the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 and continuing through the sanctions of the 1990s. There was a brief period after the U.S. invasion when Iraqis came home, but that quickly changed when the bombings and killings began.
The International Organization for Migration estimates that about 2 million Iraqis are in neighboring states. Some are in Jordan, but most live in Syria, which until 2008 allowed Iraqis to enter without visas.
Al-Khafaji said the ministry does not have numbers on people returning from Syria. But anecdotal evidence at the vacant lot where the buses arrive from Syria suggests the beginning of what could be an exodus if the situation there deteriorates further.
Buses pull in after the roughly 10-hour overnight journey from Damascus to Baghdad.
Before the uprising began, about 12-15 buses traveled between Baghdad and Damascus each day, said bus company owner Mohammad Nosh. Now about 25-30 buses make the daily trip, he said.
Mustafa Munaf of the al-Baqie travel agency said between 750 to 1,000 people have been traveling on his buses from Syria on a weekly basis since March, while only about 250 make the return journey. Many are men going to Syria to collect their wives and children who were sent there during the insurgency while they stayed in Iraq to work.
Other travel agencies said traffic from Baghdad to Syria had dropped 50 percent while return traffic was up 75 percent. Many send empty buses to Damascus to pick up passengers.
Some returning Iraqis report fighting in their neighborhoods in Syria, with police everywhere. Others describe how Iraqis are being targeted.
“The situation is very bad – killings and robberies,” said Hassan Abdul-Hussein, a father of six who used to live in Damascus. He and his family left Iraq to find work nearly a year ago.
“On the walls, they wrote in graffiti, ‘Iraqis leave to your country.’”
According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, 3,040 people returned to Iraq in Jan. 3,250 in February and 4,570 in March. That’s a jump from the 2,220 who returned home in December. With the exception of a jump in Christian families fleeing their homes after attacks on Christians, statistics from the IOM suggest few families are fleeing their Iraqi homes now.
Some are returning from Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Iraq’s Migration Ministry says 2,250 have come back from Egypt since the protests began there in January. The government evacuated 383 people from Libya and 261 were evacuated from Yemen.
Al-Khafaji said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki evacuated people on his personal jet from various countries, but he did not have those figures. Others have made their way back from Tunisia on their own, he said. He knew of only a few students who went back to Egypt to continue their studies.
Returnees are supposed to register with the ministry, but most go directly to family members who help them find a place to stay, meaning statistics are incomplete.
Salim Rahim moved his family of five to Libya in the 1990s when his wife found a job at a university. But after more than a decade in Tripoli and Misrata, they fled without even their children’s stuffed animals. An ambulance driver helped them escape Misrata, and they eventually made it to Tunisia where the Iraqi government got them on a plane home.
“We left Misrata because life stopped there. Food prices doubled and tripled. There is no government there,” said Salim Rahim. Their two cars were destroyed by shelling, and a tank round blew a hole in their apartment.
At one point, they were too scared to even talk by phone with family in Iraq because the Libyan government was showing TV footage of people arrested for allegedly speaking with foreign media.
Rahim’s wife feared Moammar Gadhafi’s Sunni government in Libya would discover her family was Shiite, so she stripped all their possessions of any mention of their beliefs.
Some have returned to Iraq for good, while others will wait to see what happens in the countries they left, especially in Syria, where events are still unfolding.
Shakir Mahmoud, 43, had been living in Damascus for almost four years after his house in Baghdad was blown up. He said he would wait in Iraq to see if the situation improves in Syria before deciding whether to return.
While the Iraqi security situation has improved dramatically, the economy has not. Many Iraqis abroad left jobs behind and have little prospect for finding a new one in a country where unemployment can sometimes go as high as 30 percent.
“I have no job, no salary, no house. I have nothing here,” Mahmoud said.
Iraqi officials seem to be preparing for even more returnees. Government officials had visited Libya before the uprising to encourage Iraqis there to return home, saying their country needed doctors, lawyers and professors.
Iraq has given returning citizens 300,000 Iraqi dinars – about $250 – and there have been vague promises to find them government jobs and let students complete their degrees. So far, those promises have failed to materialize.
Many Iraqis who never left eye the returnees with mixed emotions. They say it’s good for people to be back in their homeland, especially well-educated professionals.
But Iraqis also have held protests demanding change. They want more food rations and better government services such as electricity and water. They question how the government can take care of those who return when it cannot serve the roughly 31 million people already here.
Most Iraqis who went to Syria are believed to be Sunni, and the prospect of a large-scale Sunni return also raises concerns in a country still dealing with the legacy of sectarian violence.
“There are some immigrants who were active in provoking sectarian tensions,” said Talal Mawlood, 29, of Baghdad.
“Those kind of people, we don’t want them back.”