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Iraq’s neighbors are closing off escape routes to Iraqi asylum seekers, just as the international community has begun to respond to the 2 million refugees from the war, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

As high-level officials, including ministerial-level representatives for Iraq and all countries in the region, meet in Geneva on April 17, 2007 for a conference to coordinate the international response to Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people, Iraq’s neighbors are refusing entry, imposing onerous new passport and visa requirements, and building barriers to keep refugees out. In cases, they are also expelling Iraqis back to Iraq, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Conference shouldn’t only focus on assisting Iraqis who’ve managed to escape, but should seek to uphold the right to flee to safety of those still trying to get out of Iraq,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch and author of the paper, "From a Flood to a Trickle: Neighboring States Stop Iraqis Fleeing War and Persecution."

The briefing paper focuses on new restrictive measures taken by Jordan and Egypt to prevent more refugees from coming. Syria, which is hosting about 1 million Iraqis, denied visas to Human Rights Watch researchers seeking to document their situation. Saudi Arabia is building a US$7 billion high-tech barrier on its border with Iraq to keep Iraqis out, while Kuwait is categorically rejecting Iraqi asylum seekers.

“Jordan and Egypt have pretty much closed their doors to Iraqi refugees, while Syria is shutting out Palestinians trying to flee Iraq,” said Frelick. “The Geneva conference needs to tackle the denial of asylum to Iraqis, not just apportion aid to those who are already out or still displaced inside.”

Jordan has all but stopped the entry of Iraqi nationals at its border crossing with Iraq and is turning away many, if not most, of the Iraqis attempting to arrive by plane. Since November 2006 refugees and other travelers have reported that Jordan was turning away at the border single Iraqi men and boys between the ages of 17 and 35. Recent accounts, however, indicate that Jordan is now applying bars to entry much more widely. Most disturbingly, border guards are asking Iraqis about their religious identity and rejecting those who are or appear to be Shi`a. But they are also rejecting many Sunnis and Christians, including women and children, according to accounts of separated family members.

Cases detailed in the Human Rights Watch report include the following:

A Christian man from Baghdad fled to Jordan with his wife and four children in June 2006 after his son was injured by a car bomb and he received a death threat. Recently, his wife and youngest son returned to Baghdad because the wife’s father had just had a heart attack. They subsequently tried to return to Jordan via the overland route on March 27, 2007 but Jordanian guards turned them away at the border despite their having valid travel documents.

“My wife told the border guards that she has three small children in Amman, but they told her ‘You might be a refugee,’ and turned her away,” the man told Human Rights Watch. After being rejected at the border and making her way back to Baghdad, his wife tried to fly to Jordan with her son, but when she arrived at the airport in Amman, immigration officials refused her entry.

“That an official would deny entry to a woman and child because he thought they were refugees is a perversion of the right to seek asylum,” Frelick said. “It’s scandalous that countries are refusing entry to people who are desperately trying to escape from high levels of generalized violence and persecution.”

A Sunni refugee now in Egypt told Human Rights Watch about harsh treatment at the border crossing from Iraq to Jordan, saying he was only admitted because he had a sick daughter. “It wasn’t easy to get into Jordan. We had troubles at the border ... They don’t let in Shi`a ... They ask what religion you are. If you say you are a Sunni, it is okay. If you say you are a Shi`a, you are not admitted.”

A 40-year-old Sunni woman whose husband was murdered and dismembered in front of her before she was brutalized and gang-raped by eight men, arrived from Baghdad by plane in July 2006. She said that the Jordanians allowed only two Iraqis from the plane to enter and returned all the others to Iraq. The widow and rape victim said that the only reason they allowed her to enter was because she had a visa for Morocco in her passport and told the Jordanian immigration authorities that she was on her way there.

In addition to rejections at the border crossing and the airport, Iraqi refugees in Jordan report that police and immigration authorities are conducting many more sweeps than in the past, arresting people in parks, work places, and neighborhoods where Iraqis are concentrated. Arrests appear to be taking place in larger numbers, and expulsions back to Iraq are increasingly swift.

Egypt, now host to as many as 150,000 Iraqis, has also taken steps to stem the arrival of more Iraqi refugees. As in Jordan, this is causing separation of families, deepening the anxiety of refugees already in Egypt, and heightening the desperation of those still in Iraq trying to find a way out.

In early January 2007, the Egyptian authorities began imposing highly restrictive new procedures for Iraqis seeking entry. There is no Egyptian diplomatic mission in Baghdad, and the Egyptian authorities require face-to-face interviews by at least one family member at consulates in Damascus or Amman. The numbers of applicants are dropping because the Iraqis cannot get to Syria or Jordan.

Human Rights Watch notes that, notwithstanding their current policies to refuse Iraqis entry, the countries bearing the brunt of this refugee crisis are not responsible for creating it. The responsibility to provide and maintain asylum for Iraqi refugees cannot be allowed to rest on countries that border Iraq. The United States and the United Kingdom have a humanitarian responsibility both to refugees living in the region and to those still seeking refuge.

“The United States and the UK bear a particular responsibility to help people displaced in and out of Iraq,” said Frelick. “They undertook a war that has directly caused thousands of deaths, widespread fear and suffering, and forced displacement. This precipitated a sectarian conflict that has caused additional violence, persecution, and displacement on a massive scale.”

While Washington’s belated willingness this year to provide refuge to up to 7,000 Iraqi refugees is a welcome beginning (though only 3,500 are projected to arrive), it is not adequate burden sharing and does little to address the broader problem, Human Rights Watch said. The United Kingdom has not even committed to admit Iraqis for helping British forces in Iraq.

The wider international community has a collective responsibility to share the burden, which should not fall simply on countries that happen to be located at the receiving end of a mass refugee exodus. On the occasion of the International Conference on Addressing the Humanitarian Needs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons inside Iraq and in Neighboring Countries, Human Rights Watch calls on all governments not only to address the humanitarian needs of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons, but their protection needs as well.

Human Rights Watch calls on the governments of all countries bordering Iraq to:

  • Observe the principle of nonrefoulement – the duty not to return refugees to persecution or serious harm – including non-rejection at borders;
  • Admit at least temporarily all Iraqi asylum seekers, Palestinian refugees, and Iranian Kurdish refugees residing in Iraq;
  • Cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the registration of Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees; and,
  • Ensure compliance with the principle of family unity by facilitating the reunion of family members from Iraq.

Human Rights Watch calls on all other governments to:

  • Contribute bilaterally and through UNHCR to meet the humanitarian and protection needs of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees;
  • Provide both temporary and permanent asylum, as appropriate, to Iraqi and Palestinian refugees fleeing war and persecution;
  • Provide third-country resettlement possibilities for Iraqi refugees, Iranian Kurdish refugees, and Palestinian refugees from Iraq; and,
  • Urge the governments of neighboring states not to deport Iraqi asylum seekers and refugees and Palestinian refugees from Iraq, and to treat them in accordance with international standards.

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