For a refugee from Saddam's Iraq, a new home requires a global odyssey

News Stories, 23 May 2006

© UNHCR/J.Marshall
Mustafa Jaffar attending a recent seminar in Trinidad run by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration. Recognized as a refugee four years ago, he will be resettled in New Zealand later this week.

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, May 23 (UNHCR) Mustafa Jaffar's flight into exile began six years ago in northern Iraq. It will end this week when he leaves the small Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago for a new home and a new life in New Zealand.

Mustafa's story, like those of all refugees, began with fear. Born in Najaf into a family prominent in the Shiite community, Mustafa became aware at an early age of the unwanted attention of Saddam Hussein's regime. His brother-in-law was hanged because of his membership of a banned religious party. At the age of 15, Mustafa and his family were detained and interrogated over a brother's alleged anti-government activities. Over the course of four days he was regularly beaten by his jailors.

His family's detention took place as Iraqi forces were invading Kuwait. Six months later, following Iraq's expulsion by coalition forces, they were once again arrested and accused of taking part in a failed uprising which followed Saddam's defeat. Mustafa's father and brother were never seen again.

With links to both a family and a religious group now looked upon with suspicion by the government, Mustafa knew that safety could only be found beyond the reach of Saddam Hussein.

At 18 he began his journey, travelling first to Kurdish northern Iraq. A series of illegal entries into Iran and Turkey followed, each one ending with a deportation. When officials in northern Iraq began threatening to send him south to where Saddam's Ba'ath party was still in control, he sought refuge further afield.

Back in Turkey he met a smuggler, who, for 10,000 euros, promised to get Mustafa into the United States or a European country where he could then claim asylum. He was supplied with a false passport and a ticket to Venezuela where he was told he would be given an EU passport.

"We were taken to a safe house," says Mustafa. "I couldn't speak a word of English, but the man we were staying with spoke Arabic. He told me it was taking time to find a passport and that I should be patient. Eventually, he said we should fly to Trinidad."

In Trinidad, Mustafa was housed in the capital, Port of Spain. Two weeks went by with no word on his documents. Alone in a strange country and with his money running out he decide to seek help. He approached the UN Information Centre in the city which then notified UNHCR's Honorary Liaison in Trinidad, who in turn sought the help of the regional office for the United States and the Caribbean in Washington, DC.

"Mustafa's case illustrates both the usefulness indeed the indispensability of the UNHCR Honorary Liaison system in place in the Caribbean where we do not have offices. It also shows the need for more and better refugee protection capacity in the Caribbean region," said Janice Marshall, UNHCR's Senior Regional Protection Officer for the Caribbean for much of the time Mustafa has spent in Trinidad. "The Government of Trinidad and Tobago is willing to receive and protect people like Mustafa, but has no concrete law or policy in place to ensure they have access to an asylum procedure or to all the refugee rights to which international law says they are entitled."

Mustafa arrived in Trinidad one month before the country acceded to the 1951 Convention on the status of refugees. In 2002, after examining his case thoroughly, the UN refugee agency recognized him as a refugee, unable to return home for fear of persecution. The decision was communicated to the government of Trinidad, which agreed to extend him refugee status.

In the absence of a law in Trinidad setting out the treatment and rights accorded to refugees, Mustafa was unable to obtain a work permit, an identity document or to integrate into his new home. He became increasingly depressed and in 2005, boarded a flight to London, where he was detained by immigration officials and, as he had already been accepted as a refugee in Trinidad, sent back.

"That was the lowest point for me," he says. "I felt totally lost and exhausted. But UNHCR continued to provide support and gave me hope that I could be resettled."

Earlier this month that hope was realized when the government of New Zealand granted him residency. After three years Mustafa can apply for citizenship and a passport.

For now, the focus is on preparing for his departure for Auckland. Mustafa has been housed through UNHCR's Honorary Liaison in Trinidad within a Christian community, where priests, nuns and lay people have become his closest friends and supporters, despite their differing religious beliefs.

"People in Trinidad have opened their homes to me and I'm very grateful," says Mustafa "If I can get a passport, I hope that I will be able to return and see them again. For the first time in many years, the future is no longer something to be feared."

By Tim Irwin