Refugees forced back to a still-violent Iraq, prompting criticism of European policy

Three days after Ali Jassim Mohammed returned to Baghdad to get documents for his Swedish residency application, he was caught in a bombing on his way to the passport office.

By , Correspondent

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    Ali Jassim Mohammad shown at his brother's home in Baghdad after losing his leg three days after he came back to get documents to maintain his refugee status in Sweden.
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Working with American media, Ali Jassim Mohammad became used to documenting the misery of Iraqis caught in war. And then he became one of them, in a tale that stretches from Baghdad to Sweden and back, and underscores the growing problem of European nations deporting Iraqi refugees to a homeland still wracked by violence.

Mr. Mohammad, who studied filmmaking in college in Baghdad, was a driver and photographer for Knight Ridder newspapers, later bought by the McClatchy chain.

In the midst of Iraq’s civil war, he was a driver and photographer, and like other Iraqis working for foreign news organizations, the eyes and ears of Western reporters who couldn’t travel as freely. His neighborhood was controlled by Al Qaeda in Iraq and every time he left his house, he didn’t know whether he’d be alive to return home in the evening.

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In 2007, as the list grew of friends and relatives killed in the war, Mohammad decided to leave. He took the convoluted and precarious path of many asylum seekers – a fake European passport, transit through Iran to Europe, and then on to refuge Sweden.

“In 10 or 11 months I got the Swedish residency and to be honest, in Sweden they took better care of me than my Iraqi government did,” he says.

Back to Baghdad, where tragedy strikes

But to keep the residency, Mohammad was required to produce an Iraqi passport to prove his identity. After more than a year of trying to do that from Sweden, he was forced to return to Baghdad to get the documents he needed.

Three days after he arrived in September, on his way to the passport office, a roadside bomb went off under his car.

It was so close he heard only a "pop" instead of a deafening explosion.

“I saw everything around me become yellow or brown so I tried to go outside from the car and I didn’t feel my legs under me,” he says. That’s when he realized one of his legs was hanging by a thread. He was rushed to a hospital, where yet another bomb exploded as he was getting out of an ambulance.

Only one of his legs could be saved.

The Swedish consulate in Baghdad arranged for Mohammad to return to Sweden, where he will be given treatment and health care. Recently, while visiting a relative before returning to Sweden, Mohammad alternated between a wheelchair and a bed in the living room where was spending most of his days.

Europe ignores warnings of Iraqi violence

His case illustrates a growing problem of Sweden and other European countries sending back Iraqis to areas of their homeland that the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) considers unsafe, including the capital. Refugee officials say those flown back from Sweden to Baghdad include Christians from Mosul, where the religious minority has been specifically targeted over the last year.

Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden have each signed bilateral agreements with the Iraqi government to return failed asylum seekers, says Umran Riza, the United Nations' top refugee official in Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have sought temporary refuge.

“We’ve advised these governments to still be cautious about it and we consider it the wrong message to be sending at this time where there is still a great deal of insecurity,” he said in a recent interview with the Monitor.

The UN automatically considers any Iraqi from central Iraq to be at enough potential risk to be automatically considered a refugee – a position not shared by the Iraqi or many European governments.

“Maybe compared to 2007 it’s better,” says Mohammad. "But it’s not safe – when they are saying it’s safe I think they’re lying to themselves."

Hope for the future in Sweden

Worse than the almost unbearable pain at night or knowing that in the morning he will have to be helped to the bathroom, is that he can no longer play with his two young daughters. He says his 1-year-old doesn’t seem to understand why he can’t pick her up anymore.

“I think that she doesn’t know that I’m her father,” says Mohammad, the thought bringing tears to his eyes.

“Every day I used to wake up and walk and play football even in Sweden," he says. "I took my daughter to preschool every day and when she finished I took her back home and I was full of power and energy and suddenly in one second I can’t do anything."

He hasn’t lost hope for the future. In Sweden, he will be fitted with a prosthetic leg. He hopes to be able to walk again in a year, and then look for work as a cameraman or photographer.

It would be a long shot for anyone, he admits, but “I hope I will succeed one day."

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