(HM, December 17, 2010) - Iraqi Christians who fled danger at home are being sent back to Iraq on deportation flights that have been condemned by the United Nations.
The world body's refugee agency - the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - is strongly reiterating its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country, including Baghdad.
UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a media briefing today in Geneva that as recently as Wednesday, Sweden once again forcibly returned a group of some 20 Iraqis to Baghdad. Among this group – sent back on the eve of Ashura – had been five Christians originally from Baghdad.
UNHCR staff in Baghdad have already interviewed three of the Christians and three Iraqi Muslims among the group - all said that they originated from Baghdad. The deplaning asylum-seekers said they had been accompanied by as many as 60 Swedish policemen - two for every deportee.
One of the Christian men said he had escaped Iraq in 2007 after militiamen directly threatened to kill him. Fearing for his life, he travelled through several countries in the Middle East and Europe before reaching Sweden where he applied for asylum. He said his claim had been rejected three times in 2008 as he was not considered to have been personally targeted. The others UNHCR spoke to said their asylum claims had been rejected on the basis of improved security conditions in Iraq.
This forced return come at a time when UNHCR's five offices in Iraq are noting a significant increase in Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul to the Kurdistan Regional Government Region and Ninewa plains.
Since the Baghdad church attack on October 31 in which almost 70 people were killed - the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003 - and subsequent targeted attacks, the Christian communities in Baghdad and Mosul had started a slow but steady exodus. Some 1,000 families have arrived since the beginning of November in the Kurdistan Regional Government Region. UNHCR says it has heard many accounts of people fleeing their homes after receiving direct threats.
In addition, UNHCR offices in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are reporting a growing number of Iraqi Christians arriving and contacting UNHCR for registration and help. Churches and non-governmental organizations are warning UNHCR to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks. Many of the new arrivals say they are fleeing in fear as a result of the church attack. One man who had now registered with UNHCR in Jordan narrowly escaped the attack, having left the church minutes before the bombing took place. This refugee had been deported from Europe just days beforehand.
Fleming said that over the past months there have been many deportation flights originating from Europe – from the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden – and UNHCR has spoken out on each occasion.
The countries undertaking the highly-controversial deportations are not necessarily given the list of the people on the flights, but UNHCR staff wait at Baghdad Airport to try and conduct interviews. In this case of the Swedish deportation this week, twenty deportees were on the flight, reportedly accompanied by as many as 60 policemen.
“Churches and NGOs are warning us to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks. Many of the new arrivals explain that they left in fear as a result of the church attack on 31 October,” said Ms. Fleming.
Jemini Pandya, of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said some groups had been quoted as saying that Christians are legitimate targets for attack in Iraq. While all ethnic minorities are vulnerable, Christians are understandably worried and nervous.
- HUMNEWS staff, UNHCR