BAGHDAD — When Dhafir Hussein left Iraq last year for Sweden, he hoped it would be for good. Sectarian killings and armed gangs had turned his old Baghdad neighborhood, Sheik Omar, into a ghost town. Business had disappeared at the small engine-repair shop where he once made a decent living.
A year after Hussein got to Stockholm, his immigration lawyer called and said that Hussein would never be allowed to settle in Sweden permanently with his wife and two teenage sons, so he decided to go home. Besides, he figured, Iraq's government had said things were better there.
Hussein returned to Baghdad two months ago. His shop is still deserted. He said that customers were afraid to come to Sheik Omar. He's looked for other jobs, but he hasn't found one.
His family, now nearly broke, squats in a tiny third-floor apartment in an abandoned complex where Saddam Hussein, the late dictator, used to house his administrative staff. If the new government evicts them as it's threatened to do, Hussein and his family will be homeless.
"We have nothing here," he said. "At least in Sweden I could work."
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, an estimated 4 million Iraqis have fled their homes to escape the violence, half of them abroad. Several months ago, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki began telling them to return, assuring them that Iraq is safe.
Not everyone agrees, however, and some families who've come back said they regretted it. They face soaring rents, limited job opportunities and shortages of electricity, clean water, education and health care, not to mention the continuing threat of violence and political instability.
Maliki argues that mass returns are needed to rebuild the country. Critics accuse him of politicizing the issue by encouraging refugees to return en masse to create the appearance that Iraq is safer than it is ahead of national elections, which are scheduled for the end of this year.
"Instead of finding ways to push people home, the government should be creating conditions that make people want to go back on their own," said Kristele Younes of Refugees International, a U.S.-based advocacy organization. "Maliki has been very clear that he wants everyone home this year. One has to wonder why he's in such a big hurry."
The flight of Iraqis since the invasion has been called an invisible humanitarian crisis. While the absence of sprawling camps may have made Iraqi refugees less noticeable to much of the world, their numbers are significant: Roughly a sixth of Iraqis have fled their homes since 2003.
Only a small fraction have returned so far, but it's not for want of government effort. On many occasions, Maliki has sent his official plane to retrieve willing families from abroad. After complaints that returnees were left without resources, officials recently announced that they'll begin handing out at the airport the $900 in cash promised to returning families.
Safety looms as perhaps the biggest issue that's blocking mass returns. Though violence remains lower than it was in 2007, large-scale bombings targeting civilians have been on the rise since March. By several measures, last month was the bloodiest that Iraq has seen in the past year.
The U.N. said this month that many parts of the country were still too dangerous for large numbers of refugees to return, and that no Iraqis living abroad should be stripped of their refugee status and pushed home.
"Iraqis deserve to come back in safety and in dignity," said Andrew Harper, of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "In a lot of the country, that just isn't possible yet." The UNHCR has documented "a considerable" number of cases in which families have returned to their old neighborhoods only to leave again, Harper said.
"Maybe it's a little safer, but what about services?" asked Muthhir Mohammad, a 35-year-old security guard who returned from Syria with his wife and baby in 2007. "We have maybe a few hours of electricity a day. How can the government say things are OK?"
Within weeks of moving back, Mohammad said, he began looking for another, permanent way to leave Iraq. He still hasn't set foot in his old neighborhood because he thinks it's too dangerous. As a Sunni Muslim, he said, he doesn't trust Iraq's government and security forces, which are mostly Shiite Muslim.
"They protect their own first," he said. "We had no money (in Syria) so I thought it would be better to come back, but now I think coming home was worse. We still have nothing."
Skyrocketing rents have made it difficult for returning families to afford temporary housing. Many have come back to find their old homes destroyed or occupied by squatters.
If not for the high rents, Muthana Hammoudi said, he never would have returned to the Dora-area house his family left in 2006.
"It was much safer where we were renting, but we couldn't afford it anymore," said Hammoudi, a 42-year-old journalist. "We didn't want to come back to Dora. To be honest, we are still afraid there."
Two weeks ago a family that recently had returned to Hammoudi's neighborhood found a makeshift bomb on its doorstep. It exploded and wounded two of the children.
Younes, of Refugees International, recently spent three weeks in Iraq with a research team, and she said that almost all the Iraqi leaders whom her agency met with "expressed a very strong desire to close the file on displaced people by the end of this year, no matter what."
"They're burying their heads in the sand," she said.
Refugees International issued a report after its visit that says Maliki's administration has made the return of displaced Iraqis a component, rather than an outcome, of its security strategy. The agency also has accused the Iraqi government of violating international refugee law by asking Syria to close its borders to Iraqis as early as 2007, when sectarian killing was still rampant.
Especially troublesome, Younes said, is the absence of powerful voices within the government advocating a different approach.
Besides free transportation home and cash payments in exchange for returning, the government promises help finding work and evicting squatters. For educated professionals, a class that Iraq is especially eager to get back, the national Ministry of Displacement and Migration has made additional assurances, including free land and a choice of well-paid public service jobs.
However, several Iraqis who've returned said the government wasn't following through once refugees and displaced people were home. "Many families are not actually receiving the aid they are told about," said Azhar Abdul al Majeed, a member of the parliament's committee on displacement and migration.
Iman Whayib, a widowed mother of three who returned to Baghdad last May from Salahuddin province, said she'd been trying for nearly a year to collect the payment promised to each family that moves back.
"I've come here so many times I can't count anymore," she said as she waited in line at a government center where returnees are told they can claim the money. "Each time I come, they say I need some new document that no one mentioned the last time."
Mahmoud Othman, another member of the parliament's displacement committee, said he and other lawmakers on the panel had asked the government to take a more "responsible" approach to the refugee issue but that their requests had done little.
"When (Maliki) travels abroad, he continues to make the calls for people to come back," Othman said. "It has become a matter of politics."
Maliki's office didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
Kareem al Saadi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Displacement and Migration, dismissed the suggestion that the recent upswing in violence should preclude some Iraqis from returning to certain areas. He disagreed that the government may not be ready to provide services to those who come home. He also said that Iraq was on track to put the refugee issue rightly in its past by the end of this year.
"In the previous years, darkness was covering Iraq, but now there is no night anywhere," Saadi said. "This is the new Iraq. The people should come home."
He said his department expected huge returns from abroad as soon as schools let out for summer.
"We know most of the families are just waiting. They want to come home," Saadi said. "Why wouldn't they?"
(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Jenan Hussein and Sahar Issa contributed to this story.)
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