Germany should immediately stop revoking the refugee status of Iraqi refugees and should reconsider the cases of more than 18,000 Iraqis who have been stripped of their refugee status, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to German authorities.

Since November 2003, the German Federal Office for Refugees and Migration has sent letters to about 20,000 Iraqi refugees informing them that Germany intends to revoke their status. The letters say that the political situation in Iraq has fundamentally changed since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and that there is no indication that the new Iraqi government will persecute them. Since that time, the authorities have revoked asylum status for more than 18,000 Iraqi refugees.

“Saddam Hussein’s fall from power hardly means that it is now safe for Iraqi refugees to go home,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “The German government should recognize that persecution and generalized violence continue despite a change of government in Baghdad.”

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugee status can be terminated when the circumstances that caused a person to be a refugee have ceased to exist, but the changes that occur must be both fundamental and durable. Threats may also come from new sources, including persecutors who are not acting on behalf of a government, such as the sectarian militias that have sprung up in Iraq since the US-led invasion.

“It is simply too early to revoke the refugee status of Iraqis granted asylum in Germany, especially when the situation in Iraq remains so volatile,” said Frelick. “Germany should help relieve the burden of the Iraqi refugee crisis on countries like Jordan and Syria, not add to the problem by stripping Iraqis of their refugee status.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Germany’s mass revocation notices are a cause for great alarm among the country’s population of 73,500 Iraqi exiles, about half of whom are recognized refugees. Once refugee status is revoked, these Iraqi refugees fear that they will be deported back to a country mired in violence and instability.

German authorities insist that revocation of refugee status does not imply an automatic deportation to Iraq, and at present such deportations are not occurring. Nevertheless, revoking refugee status still has significant consequences.

Under the German government’s plan, Iraqis stripped of their refugee status will be given Duldung (tolerated) status, a short-term category that leaves beneficiaries vulnerable to deportation at any time. In addition, those under Duldung status may lose their jobs and be subject to restrictions on their movements within Germany. These new restrictions on work and movement could place undue pressure on Iraqi refugees to return to an unstable Iraq.

In its letter to the German authorities, Human Rights Watch said that automatic revocation of refugee status is not in compliance with 1951 UN Refugee Convention standards on cessation of refugee status and that the alternative of Duldung status for Iraqi refugees is inconsistent with the common EU rules on refugee status, known as the “Qualification Directive,” which lays out the minimum standards to qualify as a refugee or a person otherwise in need of international protection.

In addition, Human Rights Watch is especially concerned about the effect of such revocations on countries in the Middle East that are struggling with large populations of Iraqi refugees. UNHCR estimates that in addition to the 1.9 million people displaced within Iraq, up to 2 million are now outside their country, mostly in Jordan and Syria.

“Germany’s revocation of refugee status sends the wrong message to Iraq’s neighbors, where Iraqi refugees have fragile legal status and deportations and push-backs at the border are happening,” said Frelick.