Newly returned Iraqi refugees carry their luggage upon their arrival from Syria to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
A new UN report has shown that the political crisis and insecurity in Iraq forced many Iraqi refugees to cancel their return to the war-torn country last year.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a report published on Friday that the number of Iraqi refugees who came back to Iraq in 2010 stood at 118,890, showing a 40 percent drop from 204,830 in 2009.
The UNHCR says the political turmoil over the formation of the Iraqi new government following inconclusive March 7 elections was the main reason behind the refugees' decision to stay abroad.
Almost 200,000 Iraqis are registered as refugees with the UNHCR, mainly in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
The UNHCR estimates also suggest that there are around 1.3 million internally displaced Iraqis, with 500,000 of them living in extremely precarious conditions following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
According to the report, only 26,410 refugees returned to Iraq from Syria, Iran, Jordan and other countries last year, compared with 37,090 in 2009.
The UN refugee agency says most returnees were those who left their homes to live in other parts of the war-ravaged country.
"They were waiting to see what's going to happen with a new government," said UNHCR's envoy for Iraq, Daniel Endres.
"Before you take such an important decision such as whether to bring your family back, you want to make sure," he said, adding the security is still the main concern for many of the refugees.
"I think people will still wait a bit and see if this new government brings the security dividend that everybody is expecting," AFP quoted him as saying.
While almost 90,000 Iraqi refugees have returned to their country in the past three years, the rate of return has slowed recently and new asylum-seekers continue to register with the UNHCR in neighboring countries.
More than 456,000 internally displaced Iraqis returned to their areas of origin between January 2008 and December 2010.
The UNHCR proposed a government-led plan of action to enable thousands of displaced Iraqis to return to their homeland.
“The plan should have clear targets to address the security, property and reintegration issues that would allow people to return in safety and in dignity,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said on Monday.
During his recent visit to Iraq, Guterres met with Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to discuss the issue.
Expressing delight over the formation of the new Iraqi coalition government after months, the UN Refugee chief reiterated that the new government “represents an enormous opportunity for Iraq.”
Recalling the dire conditions of the displaced Iraqis, Guterres stressed the necessity of providing more humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi communities most in need.
“These people are living in dramatic circumstances. They are homeless or living in slums and feel a high level of despair,” he said.