Fortress Europe? EU Countries Move to Stop Flood of Iraqi Refugees

By SPIEGEL Staff

The ongoing terror in Iraq is driving an increasing number of refugees to Europe. Now the EU is being forced to make some tough decisions: Who will be allowed to stay in Europe, and will Iraqi Christians have greater chances here than Muslims?

A Catholic bishop gives communion to Iraqi Christians at a church in Baghdad: "People are getting more and more desperate."
AP

A Catholic bishop gives communion to Iraqi Christians at a church in Baghdad: "People are getting more and more desperate."

Bassam persevered for five years, believing that he could live with the daily violence, the car bombs, the roadside bombs and the snipers. But the terror kept getting closer and closer.

At first, poverty and crime drove Bassam, a 45-year-old electrician, from his war-torn village deep in Iraq's south to the capital Baghdad, where he opened a stand selling ordinary electrical items like light bulbs, two-way adapters and hotplates. It was a miserable life, but bearable -- until Bassam became caught between rival militias. He was told to pay protection money, and eventually his little shop went up in flames.

Bassam's four sons were roughed up several times, and his wife Miryam was denounced as a "whore." Neighbors warned him that he was about to face even worse treatment and that a group of militia fighters was about to arrest him on charges of being a "counterrevolutionary." Bassam managed to escape his pursuers at the last minute and flee to Jordan.

In the Jordanian capital Amman, where he lives with relatives, Bassam now works as a handyman, repairing power lines, washing machines and vacuum cleaners. The kingdom prohibits him from pursuing ordinary work in his host country. The fact that Amman is an expensive city exacerbates the situation, and Bassam has been forced to dip into his savings. His prospects of securing a steady job are slim, but the thought of returning home is even less realistic.

"Even though they have used up the last of their savings and a permanent visa is difficult to get, hardly anyone goes back," says Imran Riza, the head of the Amman office of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. "People are getting more and more desperate."

The Exodus Continues

Soon Bassam will also ask for UN assistance. If he's lucky, the UNHCR will place his family on a list of Iraqi refugees to be resettled in non-Arab countries, primarily in Europe. About 12,000 cases are considered the most urgent, but the UN list also includes another 50,000 Iraqis.

Graphic: Fleeing Iraq
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Fleeing Iraq

Violence and terror are driving hundreds of Iraqi families from their country every day. According to UN representatives in Amman, each new bomb attack is followed by yet another wave of refugees. Just last Tuesday an attack in a Baghdad market claimed more than 60 lives.

More than 2 million Iraqis have already left the country. One in ten refugees flees to other parts of Iraq, such as the north, which has remained relatively calm until now. The scale of the Iraqi refugee crisis already dwarfs the number of Palestinian refugees created by the Israeli war of independence in 1948. According to a UN report published last week, last year saw a record number of people fleeing from violence and war worldwide. The number of refugees increased by 15 percent over the previous year, to 11.4 million, mostly as a result of the conflicts in Afghanistan and especially Iraq.

For now, neighboring countries have accepted the majority of Iraqi refugees. Jordan, a small country, has taken in an estimated 750,000 people, while Syria has accepted 1.5 million refugees. Even without UN aid, many are drawn to the West.

Last year, one in 12 of close to 650,000 applications for asylum came from an Iraqi refugee -- a 98-percent increase over the previous year. This puts Iraq at the top of the list of countries producing refugees, ahead of the troubled East African countries of Somalia and Eritrea.

Pressure at its borders is also forcing the European Union to deal with a long-ignored issue. "The EU must finally accept the fact," says Wolfgang Kreissl-Dörfler, a Social Democratic security expert in the European Parliament, "that a joint approach is needed to address refugee and immigration issues."

Firemen extinguish a fuel tanker that exploded near a gas station in Baghdad, killing 50 and wounding 60 in August 2007.
AP

Firemen extinguish a fuel tanker that exploded near a gas station in Baghdad, killing 50 and wounding 60 in August 2007.

Until now, each government has done its utmost to shift the immigration burden onto neighboring countries. Under current EU regulations, the country where a refugee first sets foot remains responsible for that refugee in the long term -- from the asylum application to deportation, if it is rejected. This works better for some countries than others. It works to Germany's favor, for example, because the country's only external EU borders are along its North Sea and Baltic Sea coastlines, and very few refugees manage to enter the country illegally by air.

As a result, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has the option, for example, of sending any asylum-seekers who enter Europe via the Aegean Sea back to their point of entry in Greece.

'An Undignified Game of Chance'

Despite the millions in assistance it receives from Brussels, Athens feels overburdened by the system. After personally inspecting the country's facilities for refugees, European Parliament MEP Kreissl-Dörfler alleged that the Greeks shove thousands of asylum-seekers "into inhumane deportation camps that one can only enter in rubber boots."

Whether or not he or she will be granted asylum represents "an undignified game of chance for a refugee," says Cem Özdemir, the Green Party's foreign policy spokesman in the European Parliament. According to Özdemir, a refugee's chances of being allowed to stay depend entirely on where he or she seeks asylum. For instance, liberal Sweden is currently granting asylum to close to a third of all Iraqi refugees, while Greece accepts almost none.

But even Stockholm, where 18,600 applications for asylum were submitted in 2007 alone, is gradually closing its doors now that Sweden's highest court has ruled that there is no longer an armed conflict in Iraq. Asylum-seekers must now provide detailed proof of persecution, a practically impossible task for many Iraqis. This, says UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, has led to a rise in rejections and even a "limited number of deportations." In light of the recent outbreak of violence in Iraq, the head of the UNHCR warned last week: "It is very important for the Europeans to understand that this is not the moment to send Iraqis back."

Selective Acceptance of Refugees?

In Germany, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has become a driving force in the refugee debate. In May, a delegation of CDU members of parliament traveled to Damascus, Syria, and Amman, Jordan, to meet with refugees and UN personnel there. The parliamentarians were especially interested in Iraqi Christians, arguing that they would be easier to integrate into German society.

Top EU Destinations for Iraqi Asylum-Seekers, 2003-2007
Country Total
Sweden 33,996
Germany 13,414
Greece 11,627
United Kingdom 11,145
Netherlands 10,906
Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
But UNHCR representatives are vehemently opposed to selective acceptance of refugees. "The German offer is certainly generous," a spokeswoman in Damascus said, not without irony. "But if the Germans only want Christians, they'll have to set up their own registry." That would hardly be feasible -- and it would be a slap in the face for the United Nations.

The European Union stresses presenting a united front when it comes to refugee policy. By July, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country is about to assume the rotating European Council presidency, plans to unveil an "immigration pact." It would make the EU's external borders even less permeable, but it would also facilitate integration for those who manage to enter the EU legally.

Most Iraqi Asylum Applications, Q1 2007 and Q1 2008 by EU Country
Country Jan-Apr 2007: Jan-Apr 2008
Greece 2,127 5,474
Germany 553 4,171
Sweden 6,286 3,210
United Kingdom 455 2,075
Netherlands 407 2,004
Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Regardless of Sarkozy's plans, Brussel's EU Commission has already unveiled parts of a "joint immigration and asylum policy." Last week, the European Parliament in Strasbourg agreed to another basic element of a common policy: uniform deportation rules. Under the proposed rules, EU countries would be required to either grant residency permits to illegal immigrants or consistently send them home. Those who have refused to leave voluntarily could be placed in detention awaiting deportation for up to 18 months and barred from re-entering the country for five years.

Talks in Geneva

To ensure that the special needs of Christians being persecuted in Iraq are not forgotten, German Christian Democrats are holding direct talks with the UNHCR at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The goal of the talks is to identify shared criteria that would make it possible to bring a disproportionately high number of Christians to Germany. CDU officials want Christians to make up at least three-quarters of all Iraqi asylum-seekers.

The size of the potential contingent remains completely uncertain, with estimates ranging from 1,500 to 30,000 refugees. In addition to Christians, members of persecuted religious minorities, such as the Yazidis and the Mandaeans, would also be given a secure future in Germany. Even a small number of Muslims would likely be admitted, provided their situations are deemed especially "precarious," such as couples living in a Sunni-Shiite marriage who face persecution or violence in Iraq because of their relationship.

It remains unclear whether the other member of the coalition government in Berlin, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), will support the CDU proposal. Although Social Democrats welcome the initiative, SPD human rights experts in the German parliament have also stated that religious affiliation should not be the primary selection criterion.

Word of the preferred treatment of Christians in Europe has gotten round among Iraqi refugees who have made it as far as Syria or Jordan.

The news has prompted some, like Abd al-Jabbar Muhsin, 70, to make drastic personal decisions. Since Muhsin, a former civil servant in the Iraqi Defense Ministry, felt that his chances of gaining political asylum were slim, he converted from Islam to Christianity.

Muhsin is now a member of the Catholic Church. He hopes that his conversion will help him escape hunger and poverty -- and, if possible, secure him a ticket to Germany.

DIETER BEDNARZ, YASSIN MUSHARBASH, HANS-JÜRGEN SCHLAMP, VOLKHARD WINDFUHR

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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