World and Nation

Iraq offers to bring its refugees home from Egypt and Yemen

BAGHDAD — As unrest shakes Egypt, Iraq is seizing the moment to make an audacious pitch to thousands of its citizens living abroad: Come back — we’re stable by comparison.

The government is offering free plane tickets and about $250 in cash to smooth the return home for Iraqis in Egypt and Yemen in what a State Department official called “an impressive effort.”

The official, who asked to be quoted anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the Iraqi plan, said the only comparable effort was a smaller stipend the government distributed to refugees in Syria and Jordan last year.

“They are our families and our brothers,” said Salman al-Khafagy, a deputy minister for migration and displacement, who described the uprising in Egypt as a potential “positive” development for Iraq. “We want to keep all those families in Baghdad.”

So far, about 2,250 of the approximately 28,000 Iraqis living in Egypt have returned on flights sponsored by the government, Khafagy said. He said Iraq was preparing to offer the 10,000 or so Iraqis in Yemen a similar path home.

It is unclear whether the gambit has any hope of succeeding. Many refugees have been gone for years and have rented apartments, found jobs and started building new lives. Several people who had returned said they were taking advantage of the offer simply to visit relatives for a few weeks.

“We’re settled,” said Haithan Abed al Wahed, 46, an engineering professor who moved to Egypt with his family in 2006 and returned to Baghdad 10 days ago. “I wish I could live here, but it’s so difficult.”

Wahed said he left Iraq after surviving two bombings and witnessing a shooting. He had friends in Egypt and found work there as a tutor. He has enrolled his three children in school, and he said it was cheaper to live there than in Baghdad.

“I will of course go back,” Wahed said, meaning to Egypt.

He and others said they were relieved to leave Egypt, but that they planned to stay in Baghdad only until things in Egypt quieted down — although it is unclear when that might be.

The overture by the Iraqi government is rare among countries that have lost significant portions of their populations, said Monica Duffy Toft, an associate professor at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It’s a sign,” she said, “of the maturing Iraq government and a signal that it’s ready to repatriate Iraqi citizens.”

She said refugees typically decided to come home only after hearing from friends or family that it was safe to go back, and then do so without much help from the government.

Khafagy said Iraq hoped to encourage doctors, engineers, professors and other members of the middle and upper classes to return home.