Sectarian attacks spur Iraqis to flee again
As sectarian violence in Iraq once again spikes, Iraqis seeking shelter in exile face an ever-precarious future, writes Salah Nasrawi
Abu Fatima fled Iraq for good to Turkey last month after militiamen believed to be Shias killed his father-in-law and a brother-in-law and threatened him and his three children. Turkey’s political uncertainty baffled him, but the country still provided a safe haven to him and his family of five.
But like thousands of other Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey, his safety comes at a high price: Abu Fatima’s family is trapped in limbo. Iraqis cannot get work permits. They do not speak Turkish and their children are having trouble enrolling in schools.
In addition, they have to wait in long queues for opportunities to be resettled in a host country or risk paying traffickers huge sums of money to smuggle them across the sea to Greece and then into Europe.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ankara has set a date in summer 2015 for an interview to assess Abu Fatima’s case. Now he, his children, wife and mother have little more to do than just wait and survive.
They were sent to a little town outside Ankara for temporary lodging and meagre handouts until their refugee status is determined. After they receive recognised status it is unclear how long they would wait until a host country will accept them.
“Winter is at the door and I do not know how can we cope with the severe cold here, in bad housing and with little money,” Abu Fatima said.
Abu Fatima was stuck by the scourge of sectarian polarisation in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 largely because of his name. He was named after a prominent historical Sunni figure abhorred by Shias and who they consider an enemy to their revered Imam Ali and his dynasty.
Extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide have long been targeting people based on their names and sometimes tribal or provincial affiliation.
Over the past decade, Abu Fatima (he declined to use his real name) and his family were displaced internally many times, fleeing for their lives. During the full-blown sectarian war that erupted following the US invasion, Abu Fatima spent two years in hiding for fear of being killed. When he came out of hiding he moved to new places and forged a new identity in the name of a legendary Shia hero.
But recent sectarian violence and the killings of his in-laws and threats against him and his children forced them to consider leaving the country for good.
Nearly two years after the US pulled out its last combat troops from Iraq, the country remains deeply violent and divided. Thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes in recent months amid a new wave of sectarian violence that threatens to spark once again mass displacement internally and abroad.
Daily bombings and other attacks have been targeting mosques, funerals, markets and schools. Nearly 1,200 people were killed in Iraq in September, according to the government.
So far this year, some 6,000 civilians have been killed according to the United Nations and news agencies’ reports, though the figure could be a gross underestimation, as it does not include unreported violent death cases.
Hundreds of people were killed this week in a series of explosions across Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. The majority of the attacks targeted Shias, including pilgrims and primary school students.
All attacks bear the hallmark of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a terror group affiliated to Al-Qaeda, which has vowed to topple the Shia-led government and establish a Sunni-led state in Iraq.
In what appeared to be tit-for-tat attacks, blasts have also hit Sunni neighbourhoods, including bombings of cafes and mourners attending funerals. Sunnis, including mosque imams and worshipers, have also been targeted for assassination.
In grim testament to the instability now roiling Iraq, decomposed bodies are routinely discovered in streets in Baghdad and elsewhere, sometimes with the dead bodies handcuffed and blindfolded. Some of the victims appear killed by gunshots to the head.
Residents in many mixed towns or neighbourhoods have been receiving flyers on their doorsteps signed by well-known Shia militias telling them to leave or be killed. In Basra, the displacement leaflets said they come in retaliation for the killing of Shias in Sunni-populated areas.
The violence has reinforced fears that Iraq is sliding back into the full-scale sectarian war that peaked after the bombing of the Shia holy shrine in Samaraa in 2006. The death toll exceeded 3,000 a month for nearly two years following that attack.
Refugee agencies and officials believe that the new type of sectarian warfare that has gripped the country is forcing thousands of Iraqis to seek refuge either inside or outside Iraq.
Last month, UNHCR disclosed that since the beginning of the year, bombings and rising sectarian tensions have displaced some 5,000 Iraqis — with people mostly fleeing from Baghdad into Sunni dominated provinces such as Anbar, Mosul and Salaheddin.
UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told journalists in Geneva that reports received by UNHCR suggest that up to 160 families from Basra and Nassiriya were displaced to Salaheddin and Anbar and 57 families from Baghdad arrived in Babylon.
A smaller number of families have also fled from various provinces into Kerbala, Najaf and Wassit. Those displaced so far include Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Shia Shabak, Turkmen as well as Shia Arabs, she said.
On Saturday, the local government in Diyala said at least 100 families, believed to be mostly Sunnis, have fled their homes in the province in recent weeks after receiving threats or direct intimidation.
Iraq’s religious minorities, including Christians, Yazidis, Subis (Mandaeans) and Shabaks, have also been targeted for attack and threats. There have been several deadly attacks against Iraqi Christian families this year in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk.
While many Christians who left their homes due to threats and killings sought shelter in areas under Kurdish control around Mosul, in the cities of Dahouk and Irbil, others fled Iraq completely.
This recent displacement adds to the more than 1.13 million internally displaced people inside Iraq who fled their homes to escape intense sectarian violence from 2006-2008.
Some half a million of those internally displaced people are now squatting in slum areas or in public land and buildings with no access to electricity, running water, schools or sufficient job opportunities.
Services provided by the Ministry of Immigration and the Displaced, set up to look after the internally displaced and Iraqi refugees abroad, remain inadequate and unsustainable.
Last week, Immigration Minister Dindar Al-Douski acknowledged that the failure of the government to secure jobs for refugees is blocking their return.
Iraq tops other countries in terms of refugees and migrants.
In 2011, the UNHCR estimated the number of Iraqis living in neighbouring countries at about 2.5 million, including some 1.2 million to 1.4 million in Syria alone. After the war in Syria, which started in 2011, many Iraqis there either returned home or sought shelter in other countries, fleeing violence again.
It is hard to determine the exact number of Iraqis seeking refuge abroad but as of December 2012, there were 126,142 Iraqi refugees registered with the UNHCR in neighbouring countries, and an unknown number of unregistered refugees.
Those figures underscore the difficulties of Iraqi refugees seeking to find safe havens in foreign countries, with the US and other Western countries — their preferred destinations — now refusing or slowing entry to Iraqi refugees.
Many Western countries are increasingly becoming unfriendly to Iraqi refugees and more unwilling to allow them to settle permanently, while the United States has introduced new security measures restricting immigration possibilities for Iraqis fleeing bloodshed and persecution.
Under pressure from lobbying groups, the US Congress last week passed a law resuming issuing special visas for Iraqis who risked their lives by working with the US army and associated agencies during the 2003-2011 occupation. The programme expired earlier this year with an estimated 2,000 applications still in the bureaucratic process.
The special visa has allowed more than 12,000 Iraqi contractors, interpreters and others who assisted in US efforts, and their family members, to move to the United States since 2007. The goal was to resettle them in the United States faster than the oft-protracted general refugee process might allow.
However, Iraqi refugees’ plight is worsening as their numbers grow and the reluctance of host countries to receive them increases.
Even many of those who made it to the United States and other Western countries are living in poverty because hosts are increasingly unfriendly and ever more unwilling to allow them to settle permanently.
As sectarian violence spirals it is unlikely that refugees fled past carnage in Iraq will be able to return anytime soon.
“If I go back, I will be killed, if not instantly, it will be the next day or the next week,” said Abu Fatima who insists that he prefers living in limbo in Turkey and “waiting forever” to be resettled in a third country than returning home.