Thousands of Iraqi refugees seek resettlement in West

Iraqi refugee Leila Johanna Isho is determined to make this her last year in Syria. “Most of our family is scattered across Europe and I have a cousin in Canada so we don’t mind where we move, but we have to move because life is becoming too difficult here,” said Isho, sitting with her three children in their cramped single-room apartment in Masakin Berzeh, a working-class neighbourhood of Damascus.

With savings run dry, incomes unable to match inflation, more stringent visa requirements, and a return to Baghdad ruled too risky by most, the numbers of Iraqi families seeking resettlement from Syria and across the Middle East to Europe and North America is rising fast.

In Geneva earlier this month, Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that since 2007 the agency had recommended the resettlement of 82,500 Iraqi refugees from the Middle East to third countries: 62,000 to the USA, with the remainder to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden and several other European states.

The Syrian government says it has registered 1.1 million Iraqis crossing into Syria since 2007, while as of the end of September UNHCR in Damascus had officially registered 215,429, with 27,198 registrations for 2009.

With the 25 October bombings in Baghdad which killed at least 155 people - the worst attacks for two years - UNHCR is braced for a renewed movement of refugees should security in Iraq continue to deteriorate.

A year after its launch, strikingly few Iraqis have taken up the UN’s Voluntary Repatriation Programme. Less than 300 families from Syria have returned to Iraq under the programme, though the number claiming resettlement has grown rapidly.

Photo: Gary Fox/IRIN
Leila Johanna Isho fled Baghdad for Damascus in November 2004 after paying kidnappers to release her husband

Figures from the UNHCR in Damascus show that from 1 January to early October, 28,500 Iraqi refugees living in Syria were put forward for resettlement. Since February 2007 the agency has referred a total of 34,015 resettlement cases, but of those just less than half, 15,084, have departed for a new life. 

"Resettlement is only offered to a small percentage of refugees - less than 10 percent of the overall number are submitted to embassies by UNHCR, and from this 10 percent, a much smaller number actually get to go," said Farah Dakhlallah, a UNHCR spokesperson in Damascus. 

“Criteria are based on vulnerability. Our job is to assess who is most in need of resettlement and then deal with the relevant embassies. However, the final decisions lie with the states themselves,” she said.

No return

A Christian family from the Salhieh District of Baghdad, Leila Isho and her husband Bassam fled the Iraqi capital in November 2004 after paying kidnappers to release Bassam, who had worked as a servant in former president Saddam Hussein’s palace.

Unable to find work in Damascus, Bassam moved to Qatar last year where he found a job at a hotel. He sends most of the US$700 he earns a month back to his family.

Rising rent prices in Damascus have forced Isho and her children to move home twice, with a third move expected soon. Cuts to fuel subsidies last May caused the price of petrol to triple overnight, spurring already steep inflation which has raised living costs beyond the means of many of Damascus’s poorer inhabitants.

Yet Isho rules out return to Iraq: “We have no intention of going back to Iraq. Some other family is living in our house and we are told the whole scene has changed.” Nor is Iraq considered safe to return to by UNHCR.

Photo: M.Bernard/UNHCR
As of the end of September, UNHCR in Damascus had officially registered 27,198 Iraqis in 2009 (file photo)

“A lot [of refugees] are in touch with their family and friends in Iraq, have seen the situation and decided it wasn’t safe enough. The UNHCR does not consider the situation to be stable enough for a dignified large-scale return of Iraqi refugees,” said Dakhlallah.

Though the USA has taken in the bulk of Iraqi refugees following a policy shift three years ago (more than 30,000 Iraqis have moved to America under a resettlement programme that began in 2007), other countries have assisted only modestly: Canada has taken in 1,890 Iraqi refugees, Australia 1,757, and Sweden, 1,180, Mahecic said.

In March, the first Iraqi refugees, mainly from persecuted minorities, made their way to Germany under a scheme to resettle 2,000 from Syria and 500 from Jordan, according to UNHCR.

UNHCR plea

Earlier this month UNHCR called on countries to “expedite where possible” their assistance to refugees.

“The UNHCR continues to encourage countries to take vulnerable Iraqis and we think potential host countries could enlarge their quotas. It would be great if more countries came on board; for example, there are no Arab countries on the list of resettlement states. There is a need and resettlement is a major issue for us,” said Dakhlallah.