Foreign refuge often eludes young Iraqi men

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Bashar al-Saady knows he's one of the fortunate ones. He comes from a well-to-do Baghdad family with connections in Jordan and was accepted to an MBA program here. That made it easier for him to get permission to enter the country. Most others his age, including many of his good friends, are being turned back, he says.

He also knows rejection, however. He was also accepted to study at a prestigious university in England, he says, but was turned down when he applied for the visa. A European diplomat in Amman confirmed that the number of Iraqis being given visas to Britain is small, and among young men, even smaller.

"They refused my application because I'm Iraqi," says Mr. Saady. He could get angry, he admits, by why bother? He was in an explosion the month before his family decided he should leave, and watched people die before his eyes. "After life in Baghdad, nothing is able to disappoint me. If you live in a place where you have five or 10 explosions every day, it becomes usual, and the only question is whether you survived."

He's able to stay here for the time being, he says, at least until he finishes school. After that, he doesn't know where he'll go. Like most Iraqi refugees here, as well as those in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, he isn't legally allowed to work. And although he fears for his family in Baghdad, going back isn't an option he'll consider.

Asking US, Europe to do more

"There clearly are people being returned," says Bob Carey, vice president of refugee resettlement for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), based in New York. "The numbers are not enormous, but it's enough to create a pervasive fear among refugees that they will be returned. And there's the effect of the return – they're fearful of walking on a street, fearful to send children to school."

While Mr. Carey calls the US decision to take in more Iraqis a "small step in the right direction," the IRC is asking America and Europe to do more.

"With violence spiraling out of control in Iraq, safe repatriation is not a viable option for the foreseeable future, and neither Syria nor Jordan have the will or resources to integrate the refugees," according to the group's website.

Another issue keeping Iraqis from going elsewhere is the decision of many countries to accept only new Iraqi passports. Passports, however, are incredibly difficult to obtain and can cost several hundred dollars. Moreover, Iraqis taking refuge here, in Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries can get a new passport only by going back to Iraq.

"It's easier to get a fraudulent passport than the a legitimate one," says Carey. "And to get this new passport, a real one, they would have to go back into Iraq. Not only is that dangerous and expensive, but that would, one, make them no loner refugees, and, two, since they have no legal status, they might not be allowed back into Jordan or Syria."

In January, the US tightened restrictions on which Iraqi passports it would accept on American visa applications.

Several versions of Iraqi passports, "do not meet international security standards for issuance or design," says a spokesperson for the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

"Substandard security features and a lack of control over production and issuance make the [passports] extremely vulnerable to alteration, counterfeiting, and impostors," the spokesperson says.

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