(Baghdad) Attacks and harassment amidst the security vacuum in Iraq have forced refugees and other foreigners to flee the country and become refugees again, this time in Jordan, Human Rights Watch said today in a new report, "Flight From Iraq."
Some Iraqis believe that refugees in their country benefited from preferential treatment under Saddam Hussein's government. More than 500 of some 1,500 new refugees who have made their way to Jordan are Palestinians.
Based on research in Baghdad and Jordan, the 22-page Human Rights Watch report details the abuses against refugees and foreigners in Iraq, as well as their treatment upon arrival in Jordan.
"The lack of security endangers everyone in Iraq, but refugees and other foreigners are especially vulnerable," said Senior Emergencies Researcher Peter Bouckaert. "Now these people find themselves refugees once again, without a lasting solution in sight."
Housing is frequently the pretext for the violence and harassment. Many landlords, forced by the previous government to take Palestinian tenants at discounted rates, are taking advantage of the breakdown in law and order to evict Palestinian tenants from their homes or to extort unrealistic rent increases from them. In other cases, violence and threats have come from individuals who seem to have no legitimate claim to the property.
Khairiyya Shafiq Ali and her family were threatened on four occasions by small groups of three to five people armed with machine guns and rifles. She told Human Rights Watch about the threats that made her flee to Jordan: "They said, 'Either you leave your home or pay 300,000 dinars a month' (about $150). They threatened they would empty their guns in our head. They started after the fall of the government, approximately a week after. ...They shot bullets at our house. They told us, 'Saddam is gone, you are nothing here. You own nothing in Iraq. If you want to leave, take only your clothes."
Nazima Sulaiman, age 50, fled Baghdad with her family after unknown attackers threw explosive devices into her house, killing an infant baby and injuring six others, including three of Nazima Sulaiman's children. The attack came two days after fifteen armed men came to the house and threatened the family. "They told us 'This home is for Iraqis, you own nothing. Saddam was protecting you. Now ask Saddam to find you another home,'" Nazima Sulaiman told Human Rights Watch. "Had we known they were serious, we would have gone."
"It's not just Palestinians who have become refugees twice over," said Bouckaert. "Armed groups in Iraq are targeting other foreigners, some of whom also may be refugees."
In Jordan, Human Rights Watch also interviewed victims from Sudan and Somalia who fled threats and incidents of insecurity. One twenty-three year old Somali man, wounded in a U.S. coalition strike on Baghdad on April 9, was threatened in his hospital bed. When the government of Saddam Hussein collapsed in Baghdad, angry armed civilians came to him three times, asked how much money he had received from the Iraqi government, and threatened to kill him. Other Iraqis intervened, but when Muhammad's wound had healed, they advised him to leave Iraq, because the situation became too dangerous for foreigners.
Iranian Kurds living in a refugee camp west of Baghdad also fled to Jordan when police who had previously guarded the camp stopped coming to work. After Baghdad was surrounded, police guards even told one Iranian Kurd that looters would come for them.
Human Rights Watch criticized Jordanian authorities for limiting refugees' entry to Jordan and for holding firm to a mid-June deadline, originally proposed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for their departure. To gain entry to camps inside the Jordanian border, the Palestinians were forced to sign vaguely worded documents permitting their repatriation to Iraq, whereas Iranian refugees have been completely barred from entering Jordan.
"Coalition forces are doing little to ensure the security of anyone in Iraq, let alone these vulnerable populations," said Bouckaert. "Jordan has an obligation to protect refugees who flee to its borders."
Some non-citizens who fled Iraq to Jordan have already returned to their countries of origin. Their treatment raises concerns under international refugee law. In March, Jordanian officials and the International Organization on Migration allowed Sudanese government representatives access to a group of Sudanese who had been reluctant to return to Sudan. Other non-citizens were sent home within a seventy-two hour time limit after arriving in Jordan, raising concerns about whether they had adequate time or information to decide whether going home was safe for them and their families.
Over one thousand Iranian Kurds, refugees from a camp outside Baghdad who fled after threats and raids by bands of threatening men, are still stuck in a piece of desert that neither Jordan nor coalition forces are policing near the Jordanian border. In this no-mans-land, battered by sandstorms and with little shelter from the scorching desert heat, many suffer from a variety of diseases due to poor sanitation and shortage of clean drinking water.
Human Rights Watch urged the United States and its allies as the occupying power to prevent human rights abuses against vulnerable populations in Iraq, including refugees and other non-nationals.
Human Rights Watch also recommended that Jordan provide immediate protection and assistance to all refugees, including those currently trapped near the Jordanian border in accordance with international refugee law standards.