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Foreign refuge often eludes young Iraqi men

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 20, 2007


Any given flight arriving here from Baghdad carries Iraqis searching for one thing: safety.

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But many, especially young Iraqi men, will simply be held under police watch at the Queen Alia International Airport and put on the next return flight, say human rights groups that monitor the Iraqi refugee crisis and Iraqis themselves.

Without extraordinary connections to help arrange a residency permit, most men between ages 18 and 35 will be sent home, money wasted and hopes crushed, they say.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based organization, says that this practice – occurring regularly since last November – violates international law. Forcibly repatriating people fleeing the violence in their homeland without giving them a chance to ask for protection as refugees violates the principle of nonrefoulement, a legal term which forbids countries from returning refugees to persecution or serious harm.

"That's a development we take very, very seriously," says Bill Frelick, refugee policy director of HRW and the author of a recent report on Iraqi refugees, "The Silent Treatment: Fleeing Iraq, Surviving in Jordan."

"The fundamental question is whether the Jordanian government will continue to do this despite the fact that customary international law prevents you from effectively pushing someone back into a burning building," he says.

But calling anything "customary," he acknowledges, is essentially a tactic for trying to get countries to fall in line with international treaties. Jordan doesn't have an official procedure for processing refugees; it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. It has no national legislation pertaining to the status and treatment of refugees, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

"The question now is whether the border will remain closed to young men, but also the precarious position of Iraqis who have managed to get to Jordan," adds Mr. Frelick. "The government is refusing to call them refugees, but is calling them guests, which means they don't have rights and can be asked to leave at any point."

Four years after the invasion

With nonstop violence continuing to plague Iraq as the country marks the fourth anniversary of war Tuesday, the UN says some 3.8 million Iraqis have left their homes since the US invasion.

A steady flow of refugees continues to spill over into neighboring countries. Jordan has been one of the most-sought destinations and is now housing more than 700,000 refugees, and according to some estimates, more than 1 million. Only Syria, with at least 1 million Iraqi refugees, has more.

The plight of Iraqi refugees has gradually been inching onto the world's radar screen, particularly in the US, where the number of Iraqis allowed to enter has been low. The US granted visas to 202 Iraqis last year and only 466 since the US-led invasion in 2003.

The Bush administration is studying a rapid increase in the numbers of Iraqis the US accepts, and has offered to bump up the number it accepts to 7,000 this year.

But Jordanian officials counter that this will only make the most minuscule of dents in the problem. Government spokesman Nasser Judeh said last month that the US offer is "just 1 percent" of the refugees that Jordan is housing. Nearly one-tenth of Jordan's population is now Iraqi.

Going back isn't an option

Many young Iraqis find they're running out of money and places to go.