BAGHDAD -- The wave of revolutions that has swept the Middle East and North Africa over the last year is prompting a large number of Iraqi refugees to return home, despite their reluctance to return to a still unstable country.
An estimated 2.3 million refugees fled the country after the violence that erupted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Violence reached its peak in 2006 and 2007 when sectarian fighting between Shia and Sunni Arabs brought the country to the brink of civil war.
Now, however, officials in charge of immigration and refugee issues say that they are seeing a marked increase in the numbers of Iraqis returning. Most are coming from countries that have experienced unrest over the last year.
"There has been an increase in the number of Iraqis returning from Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, even from Tunisia," Dindar Najman, Iraq's minister for migration and displacement said. "More and more Iraqis are coming every day from countries where the events of the Arab Spring have either taken place or are ongoing."
Najman said that while his ministry does not have precise figures, he estimates that tens of thousands hare returned since 2011. He noted that the number of Iraqis who have registered as asylum-seekers or refugees in neighboring countries has declined sharply during the same period.
"These figures are continuing on a downward trend as the returns increase month by month," Najman said.
"Iraq is not yet a safe country, but it will be better to be living at home when everywhere else is unsafe," said Zainab Fadhel, 32 and a mother of two who has just returned from Syria. "This is not our war; we don't need to be involved." "I fled from fighting when it erupted in my own country, and I will flee it when it breaks out somewhere (else)," she added.
Abu Hanan, 41 and a father of four, came back from Egypt several months ago after becoming alarmed by the unrest that followed the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
"The chaos spread everywhere," he said. "I was worried about my daughters, so I opted to be back home."
Others have come to the opposite conclusion. "It's violent here and it's violent there," said Safaa Aziz, a young Iraqi living in Syria. "But at least I've got a business here. What would I do if I went back to Iraq? Be unemployed?"
Ali al-Mosawi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, says the government has programs in place to help returning refugees resettle and rebuild their lives.
"We have given each returning family a grant of $3,400 and we've also allowed their sons and daughters to enroll in Iraqi universities and schools without submitting any documentation," he said.
But others doubt that the government's resettlement program has done little to encourage those who fled to return.
"Paying someone that amount of money - $3,400 - won't even be enough to rebuild his house," said Abdul Khaliq Zangana, the former head of the parliamentary committee for displaced persons and immigrants. "It isn't enough to persuade him to return home, and then leave his family exposed to danger once again.
"If it hadn't been for the Arab Spring, Iraqi refugees would never have returned," he said.
2012, The Institute for War & Peace Reporting