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 Program (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 US 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 US 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.
(Inter Press Service)