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Klaus Barwig {*}

Refugees in the Cul-de-sac

About the Situation of Christians,
Yezids and Mandaeans from Iraq


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2008, P. 142-147
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The situation of the Iraq refugees is disastrous, and the religious minorities are particularly affected by flight and expulsion. As neighbouring region Europe has a special responsibility for the Christians who have no longer any prospect of return.


The disastrous situation of Iraqi refugees is in quite peculiar contrast with the world public's growing refusal of perception. According to experts in Iraq now the largest refugee catastrophe happens in the Middle East since the Palestinian crisis of 1948 - just in front of the gates of Europe. According to the estimate of UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, a total of about 4.5 million Iraqis are affected, about half of whom are internal refugees and about 2,2 million people first fled to neighbouring countries. Main host countries are Syria, with about 1.3 million, Jordan with 750.000, Egypt with 100.000, Iran with 54.000, Lebanon with 40.000 and Turkey with 10.000 people.

UNHCR estimates that 90 percent of the refugees are most severely traumatized and in many cases any future perspective is missing. In the West, however, one is under the impression that the refugee problem will be defused again by speedy return which is possible by the since autumn 2007 slowly improving security situation. Latest UNHCR statistics prove that just the opposite is true. So the migration balance to Syria - despite stricter entry regulations - remains positive; the refugee numbers continue to rise, albeit much more slowly: in January 2008 1.200 refugees came into the country, 700 returned to Iraq.

Especially the religious minorities from Iraq (Christians - among them Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syrians, Armenians and a number of other denominations - Mandaeans and Yezids) are affected by flight and expulsion, whose share of the Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries is about 10 percent. Just among them are many refugees who the UNHCR calls "most vulnerable persons". With about 90 percent the Christians are the largest non-Muslim group among the refugees, and the largest group among them is that of the with Rome united Chaldeans - one of the oldest churches of Christianity.

Of the once 1,2 million Christians in Iraq now only 600.000 are living in the country - with a dramatically decreasing trend (see HK, August 2007, 418ff.).



While their portion of Iraq's population at the time before the American invasion was stated with about 8 to 9 percent (other sources speak of up to 12 percent), one now assumes between 3 and 4 percent, hence a halving.


The High Educational Standard of Iraqi Christians

When we ask for the reasons for the Christians' special persecution situation a whole set of them arises: Firstly, just by their high educational level alone the Christians are regarded as better off. They were made out as a wealthy minority, which was increasingly felt as "foreign body" in an environment that rather emphasized the Muslim faith of the majority. Above all the Americans and Western companies used this non-Muslim section of the population, which in its western orientation had good skills and above average knowledge of English and employed a large number of them as interpreters, technicians, intermediaries, but also as drivers, cooks and office- and cleaning staff.

It is obvious that the Christians as group did not oppose the state power - alone for the reason of their situation as minority group. This applies to both Iraq and Syria, where their share is also about 9 percent of the population. The allegation of too close a relation to the state and its rulers suggests that from that time some old scores were and are to be settled.

These two aspects were subsequently to have particularly disastrous effects for the Christians. Persons affected repeatedly report about attacks with reference to their "collaboration with the enemy", which always follow the same pattern. In the name of Allah self-appointed "Islamic People's judges" (experts speak of criminals released from prison by the Americans) put up to the apartment doors of the Christians the demand to leave the country within 48 hours, for they had polluted the Iraqi soil and sold the country to the Americans. Or they are called upon within 24 hours to convert to Islam.

Spontaneous flight reactions always take place when after such threats individual family members are kidnapped, tortured or even killed. In this way according to eyewitness reports now Baghdad's district Dora, which was traditionally inhabited by a Christian middle-class, is to a large extent deprived of its original population.

The repeatedly presented "internal flight alternative North Iraq" does not (no longer) exist. This is also expressed by the Federal Ministry of the Interior in a decree of 15 May 2007. Persons affected report that the already limited resources there are now completely exhausted by Muslim refugees from the south of the country, and that also there on the part of the regional authorities at best a presence of Christians on the current level is regarded as tolerable.

Syria currently bears the largest burden in the Iraqi refugee drama: 1,2 to 1,3 million refugees, of whom the overwhelming part entered only after the bomb attacks on the Golden Mosque in Samarra and thus within a few months, correspond to ten percent of the Syrian population.

This high number of refugees has several reasons: apart from the geographical proximity to difficult to control border sections in the desert also many family relations, the common language, and up to 30 September a rather liberal admission policy. Up to this date Iraqis could enter with a visa issued for three months (families a year). Since the state first did not talk of refugees but "guests" an extension of the residence permit was not possible. The new issuing of a further visa could only be managed from Syria by paying 750 dollars - unaffordable for most of the Iraqis living in Syria, as refugees get no work permit and therefore must get along with their savings, contributions of relatives abroad or illegal casual work.


The Iraqis who fled to Syria become Illegal

Who still wanted to reside legally in Syria had to appear every three months at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad to apply for a new visa. No special imagination is needed to imagine what it means for people many times traumatized regularly to return under danger to life and limb to the place of expulsion and terror and there to persevere up to the receipt of the new visa.

Since 30 September 2007 this practice is past: The Syrian state - through the massive influx of Iraqi refugees shortly before the economic collapse - had announced to close the border by that time. This means nothing else but that the until then generous granting of visas ended. The consequence is the loss of the residence status - that is the illegalisation - of most of the Iraqis who fled to Syria.



Meanwhile the Syrian government recognizes the presence of Iraqi, Palestinian and Iranian refugees. So at present in Syria the draft of a "refugee law" is apparently discussed, but there is a clear political will not further to increase the numbers of refugees.

But the Iraqi refugee drama in Syria as well as in the other neighbouring states is at first glance "invisible": Most of the Iraqis who fled live - unlike Palestinian refugees - not in camps but (as long as the savings and remittances from relatives are still sufficient) in rented apartments, with the result that the rent and cost of living have almost doubled in Damascus since the start of the refugee drama.

At least in acute cases the use of the health care system is possible for Iraqi refugees in Syria. They are thus in a much better situation than in the other host countries; in Jordan e.g. a serious illness can quickly be fatal, because the treatment is prohibitively expensive. School attendance too is possible, when a proof of the previous school attendance can be provided - that too is an insurmountable obstacle for many families because of the often hurried flight.

For foreigners in Syria university studies involve annual tuition fees of about 7500 to 15.000 US dollars. In the host country this for the relatively well-qualified Christians usually means the end of the university career broken off by the flight.


The Refugees Revive the Churches

Though Syria does not talk of refugees but of guests and Syria is not a party to the Geneva Convention, there is a UNHCR agency in Damascus which has registered about ten percent of the refugees - slow dealing on the spot and the refugees' distrust of the United Nations are given as reasons. Since a large portion of the refugees - particularly among the religious minorities - sees no return perspective and is long since determined to go on (preferably to the USA, but at least to the West), the registration in the first host country is regarded as risk factor for the further migration and the reception in the West.



What importance the Christian faith and the belonging to the Chaldean Church have for the refugees becomes obvious in visits of Chaldean parishes in Damascus. When before the flight movement from Iraq about 120 Chaldean families were resident in Damascus, since then in the parishes now about 7000 Chaldean refugee families are registered, about half of which take advantage of church aid programs. The refugees anew enliven the churches, which on Sundays are overcrowded - by people of all ages.

In Jordan, which with 750.000 refugees took up the second largest group of Iraqi refugees, their share in the total population is 13 percent. The Jordanian government too initially generously took in refugees from Iraq, until recently 2000 and 3000 every day. Though in contrast to Syria there was from the beginning a visa requirement. Visas were issued for 6 months, for 150.000 wealthy Iraqis even permanent visas.

Jordan too in July 2007 shut its borders: Since then only visas are issued with a three-month validity that cannot be prolonged. Entry is now denied to male refugees between 15 and 35 years, but with Christians no doubt often exceptions are permitted.

All in all also in Jordan the refugee policy is temporary: Here too a permanent residence is not intended, and as consequence of this policy a continuous "illegalisation" of the refugees can be seen. According to information of UNHCR expulsions take place; though illegality is accepted, even when the persons concerned cannot raise the fines of 1.50 euro per day. As a result of this revised policy the refugee influx to Jordan has almost come to a standstill.


Only Extremely Few People Reckon with a Return

In Jordan too the refugees live in flats in the cities - the refugee tragedy is also here invisible and privatized: The job market is open for refugees with legal status - but only in the lowest, poorly-paid segment. Illegal immigrants picked up by the police with illegal work are under threat of expulsion. Since mid-2007 school attendance is at last possible for Iraqi refugee children; at least recognized refugees are in future to get access to the public health service.

In these opening trends in the education and health system the insight is reflected that you cannot reckon with a short-term intake of people who spontaneously fled and with their early return or further migration.

When you ask Iraqi refugees in neighbouring countries after their prospects for the future, the majority among the religious minorities is convinced that a return to Iraq - also to the North - is not possible, even if peace would prevail. The Christians who once belonged to the middle class would no longer find their place in society, just as the Mandaeans, a religious community of once 30.000 to 40.000 believers, whose roots go back to John the Baptist.

But also a longer stay in the first host countries does not seem to be realistic, just as little as the migration to other neighbouring Arab-Islamic states. The refugees almost exclusively concentrate their attention on Western states, of which they hope to get entry permits, first of all the USA, Canada and Australia, where through previous admission programs already many family relationships exist.


The European Countries' Readiness to Take in Refugees Does Not Meet the Tragedy

Nevertheless a legal migration to those countries fails because of' the growing sealing off from spontaneously entering refugees of the classical immigration countries. From it for the Western states as geographical and cultural "neighbouring regions" a humanitarian obligation results: on the national and international / European level to think about measures, in particular for those groups - namely Christians, Mandaeans and Yezids - whose residence permit will not last long in their current host countries and a predominantly Muslim environment, and whose prospects of return too are regarded as the lowest of all refugee groups. It is foreseeable that in the current situation because of their refugee fate they will become impoverished and will be deprived of their dignity. Thus the prospects of their admission in Europe and North America will further decrease because they become more and more similar to the image of the "poverty refugee", who is unwanted in the prosperous countries of the West.

The extent of the disaster allows no further delays. Especially for the members of religious minorities with their predominantly western orientation admission-quota solutions suggest themselves. There is first a special responsibility just for those who had as a matter of priority been civilian employees of the American and British troops because of their non-Muslim belief and their educational level and were now threatened and had ultimately to flee because of their "collaboration with the enemy". In the UK for instance there is an individual program for such persons. That the United States took in an unknown number of former Iraqi civilian employees by certain criteria is - especially among the "left behind" cooks, drivers and clerical workers - supposed to be sure. But there are no actual figures, respectively statements about it.



In a recent publication a "Resettlement Programme" of the Europeans and US-Americans - analogous to the admission of the Vietnamese boat-people in the seventies - is discussed by UNHCR, i.e. the admission of refugees outside the usual asylum test procedures within the bounds of fixed quotas. The American Congress fixed for the past year a quota of 7000 people from Iraq, which has however with the actual intake of 4.000 people by far not been exhausted - an admission quota of more than 4.000 people is planned until April 2008. Admittedly, more generous quota solutions are discussed in the media, but there are no official declarations of intent or commitments.


A Way through Illegality

Also the current intake figures of individual European countries are not appropriate to the tragedy. So the Swedish resettlement program annually issues settlement permits for 1800, the Finnish for 750, the British and the Dutch for 500 people (not only Iraqi refugees).

A common European solution in the context of a harmonizing immigration and refugee policy is currently not in the offing. Admittedly the Swedish government had - in view of nearly 10.000 Iraqi asylum seekers in 2006 - at the beginning of the year 2007 suggested an application of the "mass influx directive" (2001755/EG); but without success, because none of the EU member states showed solidarity with the Swedes and pursued the matter within the Commission. Main focus of concrete harmonization and cooperation is still the common safeguarding of the borders.

Against the background of sharply decreased refugee numbers (2007: 19.164 first applications, compared to 1992: 400.000) especially in Germany today greater scope for such a quota solution would be given, which is provided for in the Immigration Act in section 23, which however has to take place by mutual agreement of the Federal Government and the Lands. Comparable quota solutions temporarily existed during the Balkan War and continuously exist for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

In Germany Iraqi refugees - mostly members of religious minorities - can get a residence permit exclusively via refugee proceedings. Since in May last year by a decree of the Federal Ministry of the Interior the quality of group persecution was attributed to the Christian refugees from Iraq and the internal flight alternative North Iraq was rejected, the recognition rate naturally has risen to about 93 percent. From December 2007 to January 2008 the asylum application numbers of Iraqi refugees have doubled.

Thus people have started on a path - though on a path through illegality. In order to achieve the recognition of the refugee status the route must be covered with the help of smugglers, for otherwise another secure Third Country through which the route had led would get the responsibility, and thus they were threatened with being sent back to another Third Country (Drittstaat) which is regarded as "safe". In the case of Greece that means hopelessness: since 2003 Greece has recognized not one single refugee.

As exposed representatives of their religion also and especially the Chaldean priests (who are not subject to celibacy) complain about terrible attacks on their families. So a priest who fled to Istanbul told in a personal interview how he first escaped from Basra to Baghdad and was also there expelled from several churches. Violence had been exercised against him, his wife and his children, as well as against his parishioners; some of whom were abducted, killed and the bodies then thrown on the rubbish-heap. After those experiences the obviously traumatised priest and father of a family had no longer any strength to obey the hold-out-appeals of his patriarch in Baghdad. His bitter résumé: "At this place of the earth Christianity will never stand a chance".


Europe's Special Responsibility

Unlike the priests on the spot the hierarchy predominantly calls for staying, with reference to the ancient tradition of this church in Mesopotamia, the "cradle of Christianity". That is one reason why also on the part of the Catholic Church and its welfare associations the argument of "keeping a later return open" is nationally and internationally extremely cautiously used.

But as long as the representatives of the "Mother Church" give no priority to the fate of umpteen thousands families "in the cul-de-sac" and diplomatic considerations and historical reminiscences are put last, also politically nothing will move. Certainly, the preferred political goal would be to stay and successfully to live together in the region - in order not to encourage religious cleansing. But that goal must not be enforced to the debit of individual fates.

Conspicuous is also the silence of the representatives of the Protestant Church in Germany, who are not subject to the same inner-church considerations as the Catholic hierarchy. But as long as the churches do not publicly side with the refugees -and that on the European and national level - nothing will move on the political level.



The United States and Europe are the most obvious option for the Christians from Iraq: on the one hand because many of them got into the reticule of their persecutors through their work for the western alliance or Western companies, on the other hand because in many cases family relationships exist.

As a neighbouring region Europe has a special responsibility for the Christians who hold out without any perspective of return, just as the neighbouring Islamic countries, which - taking into account a rather better perspective of return of the Islamic refugees - especially could and should take care of them. Particularly in view of the wealthy oil extracting states in the region all possibilities are by no means already exhausted.

Apart from the in Iraq as a matter of priority necessary stabilization measures, which would above all lead to an improvement of the return prospects of Islamic refugees, this responsibility includes a twofold lasting support of the neighbouring states, which are to a large extent left on their own in dealing with the intake of refugees: First, by appropriate transfer services which prevent an economic destabilization and so maintain in the population the readiness to take in refugees. On the other hand by reducing the burden in the context of quota solutions, taking so from the states that part of the burden with those refugees whose prospects of return are to be assessed as the lowest within the foreseeable future.

If Europe still hesitates for a long time, the positive factors of non-Muslim refugees will steadily worsen: In course of time the lead in skill and the still existing educational motivation will get lost.

It should not be forgotten that the religious minorities are often "most vulnerable persons". Hence, against the background of that UNHCR classification, those who are especially committed to those groups need not from the outset be exposed to the reproach of "clientele policy" for individual refugee groups.


    {*} Klaus Barwig (born in 1952) has since 1981 been head of studies on issues of migration at the Academy of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. Thus he is among other things responsible for the Hohenheim Days on Foreigner Law. In 2001 he became an adviser of the Commission XIV (migration issues) of the German Bishops' Conference. Lecturer among other things at the Catholic University of Fribourg and the University of Bielefeld.


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