The EU and Iraqi Refugees

The Myth of "Voluntary Return"

EU interior ministers have recently agreed to take in 10,000 Iraqi refugees currently living in Syria and Jordan. But human rights organizations criticize the preference given to Iraqi Christians and warn that the Iraqi government is painting a false picture of the grim situation in Iraq in an effort to lure refugees back home. By Anja Zorob

German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble only wants to grant asylum in Germany to a small minority of Iraqi refugees. Schäuble has announced that an EU decision on taking in more Iraqis should be reached by the end of the year.

While the Iraqi government is doing its best to lure back the estimated 2.5 million displaced persons within the country and more than 2 million Iraqi refugees abroad, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is warning against a premature return home.

Instead, the UNHCR is calling for the EU to launch a much more massive effort to resettle Iraqi refugees and provide financial assistance in the main receiving countries.

Schäuble's proposal for an EU-wide initiative

Two weeks ahead of the meeting of EU interior ministers in July 2008, Schäuble called on his counterparts to quickly agree to an EU-wide initiative. But the German interior minister provided no detailed information on the exact numbers of refugees who would be accepted.

Schäuble's proposal called for the German share of refugees to focus primarily on Christian refugees. He based his initiative on the "ongoing widespread uncertainty, the violence and the violations of human rights in Iraq." Before the EU interior meeting could even take place, this idea drew sharp criticism from both international aid organizations and politicians around Europe.

Slovenian interior minister Dragutin Mate found the preferred treatment of Christians "alarming." And in Germany, Schäuble's own coalition partners, the left-leaning Social Democrats, called for "extra protection for religious minorities" instead of focusing solely on protecting Christian refugees from Iraq. But the fact that the German interior minister so quickly withdrew his proposal probably has more to do with members of his own party who warned against importing "terrorists" and "criminals" from Iraq.

Al-Maliki and the "improved security situation"

After announcing his initiative with such confidence, Schäuble was able to base his decision to abandon his initiative on the words of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had come to Berlin for talks a few days before the interior minister meeting. According to al-Maliki, the refugees should not head for safe third states, but return instead to their homeland. He said that these refugees, primarily the predominantly well educated middle class Iraqi Christians, are sorely needed to help rebuild the country.

Al-Maliki said that the required conditions for their return had been achieved, including above all an improved security situation. However, virtually no one shares the Iraqi prime minister's opinion. The UNHCR, Amnesty International and other human rights organizations remain skeptical and explicitly warn in their latest reports against Iraqi refugees returning to their homes too soon. Despite the improved security situation in Iraq, the country remains one of the most dangerous in the world.

There are other arguments against returning home right now. The Iraqis who fled abroad – as well as those who are displaced inside the country – need to establish a new basis for their existence. The homes of many refuges have either been occupied by other Iraqis or destroyed. In many cases, their personal savings have been spent during the long odyssey. How should they return home and begin again?

Campaign for a "voluntary" return

In order to promote the "voluntary" return of refugees, the Iraqi government has recently passed a new catalogue of measures. This includes assuming all transportation costs, a transitional amount of money amounting to one million Iraqi dinars (roughly 610 euros) and compensation for damage to their property.

In addition, the Iraqi government wants to ensure that squatters return all houses and property to their original owners.

Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International (photo: dpa)
Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan hopes that the German government will help not only Iraqi Christians but also other groups

​​In autumn of last year, the Iraqi government launched a similar campaign. Shortly beforehand, al-Maliki visited Syria, the largest receiving country for Iraqi refugees after Jordan, where he reportedly explicitly advocated raising the bureaucratic hurdles for Iraqis seeking to enter the country. This surprised the Syrians, who were actually hoping that the Iraqi government would agree to further supportive measures.

Nobody can say how many Iraqis have returned as part of this initiative. Estimates from organizations like the Iraqi Crescent place the numbers significantly lower than Iraqi authorities, who point to the alleged return of "tens of thousands of families" in the media as proof of the improved security situation.

Meanwhile, there are reports that many of the initial returnees have again become displaced persons in their own country. In addition, surveys show that the main reason refugees return is not because they believe in an improved security situation, but rather because widespread poverty and the inability to finance their survival abroad have forced them to come back.

Urgently needed resettlement in safe third countries

All claims of an improved security situation and the latest return campaign aside, the chronically ill, severely traumatized and young children of refugees have to return to a country where the health and education systems lie in ruins and where water and sewage systems cannot be provided for large segments of the population.

Given such disastrous conditions, it is not surprising that many Iraqis still prefer to be resettled in a safe third country such as the EU member states. Nonetheless, only seven EU states currently take part in the resettlement programs of the UNHCR, usually with low quotas for Iraqi refugees.

In 2006 and 2007, only some 58,000 Iraqis managed to gain asylum in Europe outside of these programs. This represents only an extremely small proportion of the total number of refugees from Iraq.

Given this situation, one can only hope that the German interior minister and his counterparts in the EU will not again try to shirk their humanitarian responsibilities based on the hardly plausible argument of "an improved security situation." They would be well advised to reassess their agenda, which focuses solely on helping the Iraqi refugees to return home.

Anja Zorob

© 2008

Anja Zorob is a research assistant at the Institute for Development Research and Development Policy at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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