UNHCR dismayed at forced repatriation of Iraqis; reports increase in flight of Iraqi Christians

UNHCR dismayed at the continued forced repatriation by European countries of Iraqis. The agency notes a significant increase in Christians fleeing Baghdad.

This 55-year-old Christian found refuge at a family member's home in the Kurdistan region after fleeing Baghdad following the attacks on the Church of Our Lady Of Salvation.   © UNHCR/H. Caux

GENEVA, December 17 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency expressed dismay on Friday at the continued forced repatriation by European countries of Iraqis, including one man who narrowly escaped a deadly attack on a Baghdad church.

"UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country," added Melissa Fleming, the agency's chief spokesperson.

In the latest incident, Sweden on Wednesday forcibly returned a group of some 20 Iraqis to Baghdad, including five Christians originally from the Iraqi capital.

Fleming, speaking to journalists in Geneva, said UNHCR staff in Baghdad had since interviewed three of the Christians and three Iraqis Muslims among the group. One of the Christian men said he escaped Iraq in 2007 after militiamen threatened to kill him. He travelled through several countries in the Middle East and Europe before reaching Sweden, where he applied for asylum.

He said his claim was rejected three times in 2008 and that this was because he was not considered to have been personally targeted. The others said their asylum claims were rejected on the basis of improved security conditions in Iraq.

"This forced return comes at a time when our five offices in Iraq are noting a significant increase in Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul to the Kurdistan Regional Government Region and Ninewa plains [in the north]," Fleming said.

She added that the Christian communities in the two cities had started a "slow but steady exodus" since a deadly attack on a Baghdad church on October 31 and subsequent targeted attacks. Sixty-eight people were killed during the storming of Our Lady of Salvation Church during Sunday Mass.

Some 1,000 families have arrived in the Kurdistan region and Ninewa since the beginning of November. "We have heard many accounts of people fleeing their homes after receiving direct threats. Some were able to take only a few belongings with them," Fleming said. "Our offices have distributed emergency assistance and are in contact with the local authorities to ensure that the recently displaced Christians are supported and assisted."

In addition, UNHCR offices in 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 the refugee agency 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 October 31. One man, who is 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 noted.

UNHCR recognizes the efforts the Iraqi government is making to try to protect all its citizens, including vulnerable minority groups such as the Christians. The government has reiterated its commitment to increase the protection of places of worship. While overall civilian casualties are lower this year than last, it appears that minority groups are increasingly susceptible to threats and attacks.

Fleming reiterated UNHCR's position that asylum-seekers who originate from Iraq's governorates of Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Salah-al-Din, as well as from Kirkuk province, should not be returned and should benefit from international protection, whether in the form of refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention or a complementary form of protection.

"In addition, of course, the merits of the claims of all other Iraqi applicants need to be considered carefully, including those who are religious minorities. Our position reflects the volatile security situation and the still high level of violence, security incidents, and human rights violations taking place in parts of Iraq. UNHCR considers that serious - including indiscriminate - threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from violence or events seriously disturbing public order are valid reasons for international protection," the spokesperson stressed.