More than seven years after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussain, Iraq continues to be a dangerous place for many, with hundreds of civilians being killed or injured every month.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have fled to other countries to escape the general insecurity or direct attacks.
While most Iraqis have fled to neighbouring countries, many have sought refuge in Europe, with over 23,000 applications from Iraqi asylum seekers lodged in European states in 2009.
Yet Iraqis seeking asylum face vastly different treatment on arrival in different European countries with refugee recognition rates varying from 80 percent in Austria to 0 percent in Greece.
Many Iraqi asylum seekers are not receiving a fair hearing of their asylum claims. UN High Commissioner on Refugees, António Guterres, in a recent visit to Brussels, underlined that many of those in need of international protection have little choice but to enter the EU by irregular means and may fall victim to smugglers and human traffickers. He stated, “This is a dysfunctional situation, leading people to move irregularly within the Union.”
Amnesty International has learnt that several European countries are forcibly returning people to Iraq, in violation of UN guidelines and putting those returnees at high risk. In its guidelines of April 2009, UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) advised that no forcible returns should be conducted to five provinces identified as the most dangerous in Iraq and declared “unsafe” – Baghdad, Ninewa (Mosul), Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din.
The UNHCR also advises that states should not return any individual to any other area of Iraq without first carrying out an individual assessment of the risk that the individual would face.
On 30 March 2010, however, the Dutch government forcibly returned 35 individuals from the Netherlands to Baghdad.
Amnesty International has talked to several of the 35 individuals since they were forcibly returned, including individuals who come from Baghdad, Mosul and other areas described as “unsafe” by UNHCR. All of them said they feel unsafe in Iraq; some said they are unable to return to the areas where they used to live for fear of attack.
Among those forcibly returned from the Netherlands on 30 March, a 22-year-old Shi'a Muslim belonging to the Turkoman minority, told Amnesty International on 16 April that he feared to return home to Tal Afar, north of Mosul, where his life is at risk. On 14 May 25 people were killed on suicide attacks at a football field in Tal Afar.
On 9 June 2010, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK authorities acted jointly to forcibly return a group of 61 Iraqis on several charter flights to Baghdad. On 16 June it was reported that the UK authorities forcibly returned another group of some 50 or more rejected Iraqi asylum seekers to Baghdad.
Amnesty International opposes any forcible returns to Iraq in the current situation of ongoing insecurity and instability. The organization believes that Iraqis from the five provinces of Iraq considered to be most dangerous should be granted refugee status or a form of subsidiary protection, and that in the case of asylum-seekers from other provinces of Iraq an individual assessment should be made to assess whether they also qualify for refugee status or subsidiary protection.
In the event that they do not qualify for such protection, the organization calls on host countries to nonetheless grant Iraqis temporary humanitarian protection until the security situation in the country has further improved.
There are several ways to take action. The two links below will take you to the websites of Amnesty International UK and Sweden, while the petition targets the governments of Norway and the Netherlands.
To call on the UK's Minister of Immigration to end all forcible returns of Iraqis from the UK to Baghdad click here
To call on Sweden's Minister of Migration and Asylum Policy to end all forcible returns of Iraqis from Sweden to Iraq click here (this page is in Swedish)
Please sign Amnesty International's petition below to the governments of Norway and the Netherlands, calling on them to take immediate concrete steps to end all forcible returns of individuals to Iraq in light of the current security situation and to provide temporary humanitarian protection to those Iraqis who do not qualify for refugee status.
Please circulate this to your friends, families and networks.
Image: This woman fled her home town after a mortar attack two years ago that killed several children. Copyright: UNHCR / K. Brooks