Refugees Caught Between Deportation and Death Threats

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis driven out of their country by violence are now faced with detention abroad, or a homecoming to death threats.

More than two million Iraqis, in a population of about 25 million, have taken refuge in many countries. Only a few have won official status as refugees. Most refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and many other countries stay on as illegal residents, facing threats of deportation and imprisonment.

“To deport an Iraqi refugee is to issue a death warrant,” Ali Jassim, an Iraqi journalist recently deported from Lebanon told IPS in Baghdad. “The Lebanese authorities are applying regular migration rules to Iraqis, meaning that most Iraqis in Lebanon will be deported.”

The Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Rot Here or Die There: Bleak Choices for Iraqi Refugees in Lebanon’ released Dec. 4 says Lebanese authorities are arresting Iraqi refugees who have no valid visas, and detaining them indefinitely to coerce them to return to Iraq.

“Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in constant fear of arrest,” Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch told reporters. “Refugees who are arrested face the prospect of rotting in jail indefinitely unless they agree to return to Iraq and face the dangers there.”

There are at least 40,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Complaints of mistreatment by Lebanese authorities pushed many Iraqis to flee Lebanon for Syria earlier, but this is no longer possible. As of Oct. 1, the Syrian government requires Iraqis to obtain visas.

The Iraqi refugees already in Syria are struggling.

The World Food Programme (WFP) reported Dec. 4 that about a third of Iraqis in Syria are skipping one meal a day in order to feed their children. WFP officials said nearly 60 percent of Iraqi refugees reported purchasing cheaper, less nutritious food in the face of a dramatic increase in food prices.

“My 55-year-old brother is now under Lebanese police custody,” Zahra Naji, a schoolteacher in Baghdad told IPS. “He can choose to come home in order to be released, but he will definitely get killed by militiamen who keep coming to our house looking for him because he was a Ba’ath Party member before the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”

Jordan has at least 750,000 Iraqi refugees, according to UNHCR. The majority of these do not have legal residency permits.

To get those, Iraqis need either to be investors who can deposit more than 100,000 dollars, or others who can get government jobs. Approvals for full residency to Iraqis are scarce, and now few Iraqis are allowed into Jordan.

Many in Jordan have been deported for all sorts of reasons.

“It is true that Jordanian migration offices have stopped deporting Iraqi illegal residents if they do not represent a threat to Jordan, but any minor trouble could lead to deportation,” said Omar Ahmed Saleem, a 28-year-old student who was recently deported. “I had a fight over a soccer game with some Jordanian guys, and so the police decided I would be deported.”

Omar said he could not return to his family home in Baghdad, and was staying with a friend in a different area of the city.

“I cannot go to my family house because of my (Sunni) first name, ‘Omar’ which is like a death warrant on me because sectarian militias are still active in my area (the Sha’ab Quarter),” he told IPS.

Tens of thousands of Sunni Iraqis have been killed simply because their names were Omar, Bakr, Othman or other such, targeted by the Shia Badr and Mehdi militias.

“Jordanian migration officers ask Iraqis sometimes whether they prefer to be deported to Syria or to Iraq,” Sammy Hamid, an Iraqi technician who was deported from Jordan recently told IPS in Baghdad. “I worked as a taxi driver and I knew they would deport me if they caught me, but I could not find any other job. The new Syrian visa regulations made it certain that I come to Iraq and take my chances.”

Sammy now faces detention by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior on charge of revealing national secrets while working as a freelance cameraman who covered many violent events. He is now forced to live away from his home and work as a porter.

“Now I am a porter instead of a reporter,” Hamid laughed as he told IPS of his plight.

But the situation remains deadly serious for millions of displaced Iraqis.

“Millions of Iraqis are suffering the consequences of the U.S. occupation, and we hope our Arab brothers will think twice before deporting Iraqis,” Ammar Shakir, a human rights activist in Baghdad told IPS. “No matter what crime an Iraqi refugee might have committed, the punishment should not be deportation that might lead to death.”

According to UNHCR, there are more than 2.25 million Iraqis internally displaced within their country, besides more than 2.5 million who have fled Iraq.

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)