The World from Berlin: 'A Matter of Life and Death' for Iraqi Refugees

Europe is opening its doors to the first of a 10,000-strong group of mostly Christian Iraqis. A quarter of the newcomers will resettle in Germany, prompting soul-searching in the national press, as commentators wonder if enough is being done to help the victims of persecution.

They've been chased and threatened, exiled and robbed. They lived for years as refugees in Syria or Jordan. This week, though, the first 122 of 2,500 Iraqi refugees arrived in Germany, where the government is to provide them with longterm residency. On Thursday, 37 families arrived in Germany as part of a deal between the European Union and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that will see the resettlement of 10,000 Iraqis to Europe.

Iraqi refugees arrived in Germany on Thursday -- the first of 2,500 being taken in by the country as part of a European Union deal that will see 10,000 Iraqis given longterm homes in Europe.
DPA

Iraqi refugees arrived in Germany on Thursday -- the first of 2,500 being taken in by the country as part of a European Union deal that will see 10,000 Iraqis given longterm homes in Europe.

Many of the families are Christians for whom living in Iraq has become extremely dangerous. Churches have been bombed, bishops murdered and anyone wearing a cross can quickly become a target. The Christians are too small a minority in the Muslim country to protect themselves.

Of the first refugees to arrive in Germany on Thursday, about 60 percent were Christian and 15 percent Muslim, as well as 15 percent Mandaean.

The refugees include people like Rita, who once owned a hair salon but had to give it up after receiving death threats. She lived a life of fear until, like many other Christians, she fled the country with her family. Now she has nothing to return to -- her house has been occupied and her neighborhood has been "ethnically cleansed."

Rita's father was kidnapped because he is a Christian. His wife searched for him for one month and then fled to Syria. Police freed him after eight weeks, but it took him nine months to find out where his family had gone.

Indeed, many of the Iraqi refugees survived horrible events and are traumatized. Sixteen-year-old Muhanad, for example, was kidnapped on his way to school at the age of 14. His kidnappers held him captive until his parents were able to raise $10,000 in ransom by selling jewellery and getting help from other family members. They took the money and dumped the boy in the street with two broken legs. "I cried for two weeks, but now everything is okay, " he says. Muhanad's family belongs to a Mandaean minority group, which like Christians and Yazidis, became the target of terrorism early on.

His family used to be well off -- they had two cars and his father, an engineer, sometimes worked for German companies. But the threat of terror grew. After US soldiers searched his family's house, masked men arrived and accused them of being informants. Fleeing the country was unavoidable. All the family now has as a momento of their past lives is an envelop full of family photographs.

The persecution was far from limited to religious minorities -- it was also perpetrated against Muslims like a young man named Mohamed, who was terrorized by the Sunni terror network al-Qaida on one side and the brutal Shiite Mahdi Army on the other. Mohamed, a young imam, had wanted nothing but peace between the two Muslim branches -- and he preached that each Friday in his small mosque. But Baghdad turned out to be the wrong place for that message of tolerance in 2006.

"You're a dead man!" members of both groups told Mohamed. He escaped his pursuers, fleeing to Damascus in the summer of 2007 with his wife and child. His brother wasn't so lucky: He was tortured to death with a power drill and Mohamed identified his body.

Most of the refugees who have come to Germany managed to make it to Syria or Jordan, but their prospects there were poor -- they couldn't work, their children weren't provided with schooling, Iraqis lived in poor conditions in impoverished neighbourhoods and the healthcare provided was deficient. For those Iraqis who couldn't return to their country, staying on in Syria or Jordan merely protracted their suffering.

Unlike most asylum seekers, the Iraqi refugees now coming to Germany will be given normal residence and work permits as soon as they arrive.

On Friday the new arrivals formed a major talking point for the German press, with most editorialists welcoming the newcomers and predicting they would make a smooth adjustment to their new home. Some however, dubbed it a timid and belated step or even a "drop in the ocean."

There were loud calls for heightened political pressure on Iraq to respect basic human rights. Only then, commentators argued, would Iraq's Christian minorities be able to shed their fear for their lives.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Altogether 2,500 people are to be received in Germany, the majority adherents to religious minorities currently under threat. Even though the Americans and the Brits are not without guilt in this matter, Iraq was already a state which showed little respect for human rights. Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party were unpredictable in their treatment of minorities. The ruler's favor switched according to what was most beneficial at any given moment. Experience shows that Arabic Christians often integrate more easily into European societies than their Muslim compatriots."

"There are good chances that the Iraqis, who are starting to arrive ... will find a good home in Germany, even if some harbor overly heightened expectations. The pressure on the Middle Eastern states to adhere to human rights has to be stepped up. Notorious persecutors should not be able to rely on the fact that Europeans will take in their unwanted citizens."

The right-leaning daily Die Welt writes:

"It has taken so long for Germany and the EU to finally manage to accept refugees from Iraq. In difficult times, there is little willingness -- whether its the southern Sicilian island of Lampedusa or the northern part of the continent -- to provide a home for the victims of distant conflicts."

"There is also a specific reason, which is even sadder. As paradoxical as it sounds, this decision was so delayed because the refugees, like the majority of Germany, are Christians. Admittedly, there are good reasons not to open our arms too wide. When we as Christians take in Christians living under a permanent state of threat in Iraq, we, in effect, give in to radical powers which aim to turn Iraq into a Christian-free zone. Naturally, it would be much better if the Christians, who have a 2,000 year history in the country, were secured a future in the region. It would be a defeat if the final third of the once 800,000-strong Christian community were displaced."

"But in places, like Iraq, where it is really a question of life and death, help should be automatically offered by a Christianity-imbued land like Germany and a Christianity-imbued continent like Europe. But it isn't happening. Even though in the higher ranks of parties the word 'Christian' is used in official names, this responsibility is often not recognized. Some wonder if taking in Christians would be tantamount to giving them preferential treatment over other religions, but this isn't the case. It should be a matter of course that people look out for those sharing their cultural tradition. It is no sign of tolerance that this is seen as superfluous or frivolous -- but rather the most natural thing in the world. It is good that Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has not caved in to the prevailing mood.

Berlin's leftist Die Tageszeitung writes:

"In the context of the Iraqi refugee drama, the admission of 2,500 Iraqis is a drop in the ocean. Altogether 2.5 million people have left Iraq, and by far the biggest number of refugees are stranded in Syria and Jordan. Worldwide there are more than 40 million displaced people according to the UN, and they mostly take refuge in neighboring countries that are completely overburdened."

"For this reason the German government should go a step further and turn the admission of the Iraqis into a proper resettlement program, as refugee organizations have long called on it to do. Such a program would compel the government to offer a permanent home to a fixed number of refugees each year. Among others, the US, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and Britain have been doing this for some time. There is also capacity for such a move given that numerous European and German laws have been tightened with the effect that the number of asylum seekers in the country has been extremely reduced."

"The preconditions for the integration of the Iraqis are good: Unlike other asylum seekers they will be immediately given a three-year right to remain and a work permit. There is wide-reaching popular support for their admittance, especially within the church. That is surely also because the majority are persecuted Christians. But why should this step not apply to other refugees? The willingness of Germany to help should not end with Iraqi Christians".

-- Yassin Musharbash and Jess Smee, 1 p.m. CET

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