Iraqi refugees turn to Europe as uncertainty clouds their country

Four times a week, an Iraqi Airways Boeing 747 leaves Baghdad Airport for Minsk, the capital of Belarus, with hundreds of Iraqis on board. The passengers are not going to one of Europe’s newfound tourist destinations but are refugees seeking shelter in the Old Continent. 

Once they are in Belarus, the Iraqi asylum-seekers try to make their way to neighbouring Lithuania, where they hope they can arrange to travel to richer EU countries where they can apply for resettlement. The influx has triggered an uproar in Lithuania, where the government has accused Belarus of orchestrating the massive refugee inflows in retaliation against EU sanctions on the former Soviet Republic. 

After Minsk forced a European airliner to land in Belarus in order to arrest a dissident journalist in May, Brussels has threatened to ratchet up the sanctions that it slapped on Belarus last year over a crackdown on protests in the country. Yet, the controversy has unexpectedly gone beyond the Belarus-Lithuania tensions to underline Iraq’s unending conflicts and raise new concerns about the future of the country. 

It has overshadowed the larger and more crucial issue of the transition in Iraq, which has become increasingly precarious amid concerns that the country remains marred by conflicts and the challenges of reconstruction and reintegration. 

The increasing political uncertainty has stoked fears of a new wave of refugees to Europe similar to the ones precipitated by the sectarian conflict in Iraq in 2006-2007 and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group in 2014. This week, hundreds of people have been detained while trying to cross from Belarus into Lithuania, and the country’s border guard service said that all the migrants had come from Iraq. 

The EU said last week that about 2,700 migrants, most of them from Iraq, have crossed illegally into the Baltic EU member state in recent months and been taken to detention centres. Brussels has intensified the pressure on Iraq to help stem the flow of migrants to Belarus. EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said the EU had been in contact with the Iraqi government in order to better control flights to Belarus. 

“This is an issue of concern not only for one member state, but also for the entire EU. We count on Iraq’s support,” EU Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell tweeted after talks with Iraq’s foreign minister to further press him on the issue. 

The bloc has said that “a large part” of those crossing into Lithuania did not appear to be eligible to claim asylum in the EU. It said Iraq had set up a joint committee with the EU to discuss migration matters including the alleged smuggling of people into Lithuania. The EU has already been pressing Baghdad to facilitate the return of Iraqi nationals who have been denied the right to remain in the EU. 

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has made it clear that it can do little to help in the crisis. It said that Iraqis were travelling to Belarus legally and that it could not stop them as long as Minsk allowed them entry as tourists. “No government in the world can do that as long as they are travelling legally,” said a statement by the office of the country’s National Security Adviser. 

The Iraqi government has also publicly said it will not accept Iraqi refugees being returned against their will, but EU officials have said that Baghdad has pledged to facilitate their return. The row has highlighted the dilemma of millions of Iraqis who have been either internally displaced or have sought refuge abroad since the US-led invasion of their country in 2003. 

A number of European states have shown a willingness to return rejected asylum-seekers to Iraq over the past few years. Hundreds of Iraqi migrants who had been living in EU nations have returned to Iraq under arrangements with Baghdad after they were denied permits to stay. The EU has described their return as “voluntary”. 

Some EU countries have announced their intention to cancel residency permits for Iraqi refugees, as they now consider Iraq to be safe enough for refugees to return to. More than a million migrants and refugees, including some tens of thousands of Iraqis, crossed into Europe in 2015, sparking a crisis as countries struggled to cope with the influx. 

The vast majority arrived by sea, but some migrants have made their way in over land, principally via Turkey. Since then, Turkey has been acting as a gatekeeper for the EU in exchange for billions of dollars in aid. Iraq is among the top five most-common countries of people seeking asylum in the UK. The British government is reportedly considering plans to hold asylum-seekers in Australian-style offshore processing centres or even opening new ones in the African nation of Rwanda. 

In the US, the authorities are conducting an investigation into allegedly fraudulent applications from Iraqis seeking resettlement in the country by claiming refugee status. The US media reported in July that the state department was re-examining applications from more than 104,000 people after about 4,000 applications were found to be suspected of containing false information. 

Over 500 Iraqis who have been accepted as refugees in the US have already been implicated in the alleged fraud and could now face deportation to Iraq. Iraqis have also fled sectarian conflicts, terrorism and a failed state at home to neighbouring countries. There are some two million Iraqis living in urban centres across the Middle East rather than in refugee camps. 

The conflict in Iraq has produced one of the biggest movements of displaced people in the Middle East in recent years, with millions returning after the end of operations to damaged and unsafe houses lacking basic necessities and healthcare. Both migration and internal displacement have had a transformative impact on the political, economic and social aspects of forced population movements in Iraq as well as sometimes also on demographic changes. 

With Iraq battling apparently endless conflict, as well as continuous violence, a protracted political deadlock, severe drought, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and diminishing resources as its future remains uncertain, many Iraqis still hope to flee the country and seek safety and a better life abroad. 

Like many other asylum-seekers, Iraqis escaping their battered country may also use gaps and loopholes such as the conflict between Lithuania and Belarus to make their way to safe havens abroad. As a result, the international community should stop dealing with Iraq’s refugees as a political tool, using them as a pawn for revenge or to flatter or manipulate the corrupt Iraqi leadership to make it take the refugees back. 

Iraq’s refugee problems can only be solved through a comprehensive and integrated strategy that will ensure an equitable worldwide sharing of responsibility to deal with the refugee problem and support efforts to end Iraq’s miserable state of affairs. 

Under the UN refugee convention, people cannot be penalised for entering a country to claim asylum if they are “coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened.” A short-term stopover, such as transit through Belarus, should not mean that the Iraqis have to forfeit their right to claim refugee status elsewhere, let alone force them to go back to where they feel their lives are imperiled. 

Though there are still relatively small groups of Iraqis using the Belarus route to the EU, it is the clearest indication yet of a brewing crisis in Iraq that could trigger a bigger exodus if the country begins to crumble. For nearly 20 years, the international community, primarily made up of the US, the EU and the UN, has failed Iraq because of the unwise decisions, haphazard policies and strategic mistakes applied there. 

The basic goal following the US-led invasion in 2003 was to rebuild Iraq as a democratic and stable system. However, bad governance, rampant corruption and cronyism in the country have undermined stability and allowed terror groups and militias to entrench themselves. If the EU wants to stem a new refugee crisis, it should address the core issue of state failure in Iraq, which often appears to be out of reach of current EU diplomatic initiatives and political dynamics. 

by Salah Nasrawi

Post a Comment