The vast majority of Iraqis who fled their country have no plans to return even though violence is way down, many hoping instead to resettle in the West.
The trend, uncovered on the basis of scores of interviews by The Associated Press and confirmed by Iraqi government and United Nations figures, raise the possibility that countries like Syria and Egypt — poor themselves — could face a significant refugee problem for years to come.
Iraq may never, or at least not for years, recover much of the urban, educated, predominantly Sunni Muslim and Christian middle-class whose skills would be vital to its rebuilding. The ranks of doctors and other medical professions have been particularly hard-hit by the refugee flight.
"Life here is better. My children can play outside and I know they'll come back. You never know what's going to happen there," said Taghrid Hadi, who fled Iraq in September 2006 after gunmen kidnapped and killed her husband, dumping his mutilated body outside their home just north of Baghdad.
No intention of returning home
Hadi, 34, has no intention of returning home. She and other relatives are waiting for word on their applications to be resettled in a third country. Where? "Anywhere but Iraq, I don't care where," she said.
More than 2 million refugees remain outside Iraq, mostly in the Sunni countries of Syria, Jordan and Egypt, according to the International Organization of Migration and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Only about 16,000 refugees — less than 1 percent — have returned from abroad, said Karim al-Saedi, an Iraqi Migration Ministry official.
Besides Iraqis who fled abroad, approximately 1.6 million people have left their homes to take refuge in other parts of Iraq since 2006. They too have been slow to return: About 297,000, or 18 percent, are believed to have gone back, according to an April report by the International Organization of Migration.
In Syria, which has the greatest refugee population — estimated by the government at 1.2 million — only 670 people have asked to benefit from the U.N.'s Voluntary Repatriation Program launched in October to help Iraqis return home, says Philippe Leclerc, acting representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus.
"The situation in Iraq is still extremely fragile," making many reluctant to return, Leclerc said.
A fragile peace in Iraq
While violence is dramatically down from its height in 2006-2007, the fragility has been clear in the past week, with a string of suicide bombings targeting Shiite areas of Baghdad. In the latest, two car bombs tore through a crowded commercial district, killing 51 people on Wednesday.
Refugees say the lack of basic services and continuing unemployment in Iraq are also reasons they prefer to stay put in neighboring countries, where — even if their savings are running low and their status uncertain — many can find schools and under-the-table jobs.
Also, Sunni-Shiite sectarian divisions remain deep in Iraq. Some refugees have returned home only to find the hatreds too strong, prompting them to leave again.
Batoul Saleh, a Sunni retired teacher who fled to Cairo with her daughter three years ago, went back to Baghdad in late 2007 only to find that a Shiite man and his family had taken over her house in the mainly Shiite Shula district. The man told her his own father's home was taken over by Sunnis 30 years ago "and it's payback time," Saleh said.
"It's not our country anymore, it's a gangland, it's a jungle," Saleh said as she waited in line at the U.N. refugee agency in the Egyptian capital.
Sunnis in Syria remain wary
Many among the refugees in Syria are Sunnis, including some Saddam Hussein loyalists or former members of his Baath party. They remain wary of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and do not trust the prime minister's call for reconciliation.
Overall, the lack of returning refugees could leave Iraq significantly more Shiite than before the U.S.-led invasion. Sunnis formed the bedrock of the educated middle class under Saddam's regime, needed as Iraq rebuilds.
Their reluctance to return only solidifies Iraq's sectarian imbalance. Baghdad, which once had about equal numbers from the two sects, is now believed to have a firm Shiite majority, with formerly Sunni districts emptied or filled with Shiite migrants. That boosts the power of Shiite parties in elections. It even skews the vote among Sunnis, since those who left were largely urban and educated, leaving greater rural and tribal influence on Sunni politicians.
There are numbers of Shiites among the refugees in Egypt and Syria, also fearful to return home to areas that remain Sunni-dominated. But Iraqi Shiites from Iran, for example, have flooded home. Before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, mainly Shiite Iran was home to more than 200,000 Iraqi refugees, mostly Shiites fleeing repression under Saddam's regime. The vast majority returned home after Saddam's fall, though about 54,000 remain in Iran.
Tracking the numbers is difficult
Some refugee families appear to be moving back and forth, keeping a permanent base abroad while visiting Iraq to take care of business or family matters — a sign perhaps of deepening roots in exile, or a desire to keep options open. Tracking the numbers is difficult and many families are divided, said Leclerc.
The sprawling UNHCR registration center, located just outside Damascus, is the busiest and currently the biggest in the world, U.N. officials say, adding that 205,754 refugees in Syria have registered and many seek resettlement abroad.
Carmen Daoud, 20, and her 70-year-old father were among dozens of Iraqis sitting at the center recently. They are Christians from the northern city of Mosul, where violence targeting their community has dramatically escalated what had been a longtime gradual exodus of Christians.
"Even if our application gets rejected, we won't go back to Iraq," says Daoud, a slim girl in denim clothes. "What should we go back to? Our neighbors are gone, people we once knew are either kidnapped or killed."
In Egypt, Tha'er Nouri talks often on an Internet phone system with his two brothers in Baghdad. They all fled to Cairo in 2006 after the brothers received death threats. They recently tried going back, but the 27-year-old Tha'er said he found it "intolerable" and returned to Egypt.
"I don't have money to go out (in Cairo), but at least the TV has power when I turn it on and the tap has drinkable water," said Tha'er. "I can walk the streets without ... looking into the eyes of potential kidnappers or sectarian assassins."
Preparing to return home
Not everyone prefers exile.
Salem Mohsen is preparing to return home from Syria despite having lost two brothers to violence in Iraq.
Salem, 28, a Sunni from the volatile Diyala province north of Baghdad, fled here with his family after he was kidnapped and tortured for two months. His application to resettle in the U.S. was rejected. Now he plans to go back.
"The situation is supposed to be better, there have been Awakenings in our areas," he said, referring to the Awakening Councils, Sunni tribes that rose up with American encouragement against al-Qaida in Iraq in 2006.
Iraq's government is hoping more will do the same — especially during June and July, when the school year ends. It may organize more free trips home.
But Hadi is sure she will not be on board.
"It's enough I lost my husband," she said. "I cannot lose anything more."