VII. Vulnerable Groups

Jordan’s “silent treatment” of Iraqi refugees is based, in part, on a denial that Iraqis residing in Jordan are, in fact, refugees. A Jordanian official encapsulated the government’s stance when he told Human Rights Watch that Jordan was not facing a refugee problem at all, but rather one of “illegal immigration, no different from what the United States faces with Mexicans.”195 The government’s communication to UNHCR in April 2005 that UNHCR should apply its temporary protection regime to Iraqis “long after the war in Iraq was over,” further reveals the government’s conscious attempt to ignore the causes of refugee flight as a way of avoiding responsibility to provide protection or assistance to the victims of war and persecution. The fact that UNHCR accords its recognition to only 712 out of at least 500,000 Iraqis living in Jordan provides little counterweight to the government’s assertions that the large population of Iraqis on its soil are not refugees.196

The purpose of this paper—at the most basic level—is to show that many, if not the overwhelming majority, of the more than a half million Iraqis living in Jordan, are refugees, despite the fact neither the government nor UNHCR has formally recognized them as such, and that they need to be protected.

De facto refugees flee Iraq for a variety of reasons, first and foremost, to escape generalized violence and insecurity. But many groups are targeted for particular reasons, including ethnic cleansing. De facto Iraqi refugees in Jordan come from all walks of life and diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. In this respect, they represent and reflect patterns of persecution and violence within Iraq.197 They include people who fled during the Saddam Hussein era and who still fear return, as well as people who newly arrive at the border.

Most of the Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR prior to 2003 were Shi`a.198 Since April 2003, there has been a steady increase of religious minorities, principally Christians and Mandaeans (a religion whose adherents follow the teachings of John the Baptist).199 Lately, as sectarian violence has escalated in Iraq, the office has seen an increase in Sunnis fleeing Iraq.200

Categories at presumptive risk of persecution in Iraq at the present time include Sunnis and Shi`a who reside in locations clearly dominated by the other group, such as Samarra’, Ba’quba, Abu Ghraib, Baghdad, and Basra, as well as families in Sunni/Shi`a mixed marriages. But even these categories do not adequately define the at-risk populations in Iraq. Almost all areas of the country are dangerous; particular hotspots include Baghdad, Mahmudiya and the towns 30 kilometers south on the highway to Hilla, as well as Ramadi, Falluja, Haditha, Tal `Afar, and Mosul. An objective assessment of the risks would suggest that persons fleeing such areas—if not the country as a whole—should be protected at least on a temporary basis.

People fleeing sectarian Sunni-Shi`a violence are represented among the newest arrivals, particularly since the escalation of violence and ethnic- and religious-based forced displacement in the aftermath of the February 22, 2006, bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra’, Iraq, a site revered by the Shi`a.201 In the first two months following that bombing, an estimated 81,000 people were forcibly displaced from their homes, though most remained displaced within Iraq.202 This displacement, so far, has largely remained internal because the major movements have been of Iraqis living in mixed towns and neighborhoods moving into areas where their religious group predominates.203

Perpetrators of attacks leading to displacement involve both Sunni-on-Shi`a attacks by insurgent groups, such as the Al-Qaeda Organization in Mesopotamia and the Partisans of the Sunna Army, and Shi`a-on-Sunni attacks by government-backed militias, such as the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization. The International Crisis Group observes, “Sectarian passions are inflamed on both sides with each gruesome attack or discovery of mutilated bodies, an almost daily occurrence.”204

Human Rights Watch encountered de facto refugees in Jordan who fled threats and violence related to their real or imputed association with the U.S. military or government forces or other foreign forces in Iraq, including private, nongovernmental entities. Insurgent groups in Iraq threaten as collaborators both Iraqis who work for foreigners as well as those holding Iraqi government or political posts.205 English interpreters have been particularly vulnerable, including those who work for international humanitarian agencies and members of the media.206

Most de facto Iraqi refugees in Jordan have middle class, urban origins.207 This background has not only made them more likely than their poorer compatriots to be targeted in Iraq for persecution and for common crime, such as robbery and kidnapping for ransom, but has also provided them the resources to travel the long road to Jordan, cross the border, and sustain themselves in exile. Women of middle class origin, particularly members of religious minorities, have not only been subject to attack in Iraq because of their mode of dress, for their employment, or for exhibiting “immoral” or “un-Islamic” behavior, but have also encountered difficulties in surviving in Jordan, particularly those who are single or who are members of non-Islamic minority groups.208 Intellectuals and professionals have increasingly become targets, as well, for kidnapping and killing. While the motives of their attackers may be mixed, including common criminality in a highly lawless environment, some perpetrators have indicated a desire to rid Iraq of its professional and intellectual class.

Non-Iraqi refugee groups living in Iraq have been particularly vulnerable, and those who have managed to flee to Jordan have been isolated in camps in the remotest reaches of Jordan, on or near the border with Iraq.209 The two main refugee groups in Iraq who found themselves in the incongruous position of being both recognized refugees in Iraq and asylum seekers in Jordan are Palestinians and Iranian Kurds. Both groups lived for decades in Iraq without having integrated into Iraqi society, and found themselves especially vulnerable after the fall of Saddam Hussein. At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, neither group had found another welcoming place of refuge. Some Palestinians and Iranian Kurds who arrived at the beginning of the war in April 2003 managed to enter the country, only to be kept in closed camps in a remote, desert area, where hundreds remain three years later. Later arrivals were not permitted to enter Jordan and found themselves stranded at even more inhospitable locations in the no man’s land between Iraq and Jordan or on the Iraqi side of the border.210 

Human Rights Watch does not intend the following listing of particularly vulnerable groups of de facto refugees encountered in Jordan to be exhaustive. A more comprehensive accounting of groups facing persecution in Iraq can be found in an October 2005 Human Rights Watch report, A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq.211 But even that 140-page report was limited to victims of insurgent groups, defined as armed opposition groups to the U.S.-led military coalition, the Multi-National Force in Iraq (MNFI), and to the current Iraqi government. The report, therefore, did not include victims of Shi`a militia, such as the al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, who have perpetrated violence against Sunnis, persons associated with the Ba`th Party or the former government, Palestinians, and other minorities. It also did not include victims of the MNFI, which has carried out tens of thousands of violent raids and full-scale attacks on at least four cities—Falluja (twice), Ramadi, Tal `Afar, and Najaf—since toppling the Ba`th regime. In fact, de facto refugees in Jordan have been the victims of a wide array of groups with quite varied motivations. Although specific categories of vulnerable groups are listed, in fact, there is considerable overlap, so that the same individual might be a member of multiple vulnerable groups—such as a Christian intellectual accused of collaborating with foreign elements because she speaks English.

Alleged Collaborators

Among the most vulnerable individuals in Iraq are people who insurgents believe are working on behalf of the MNFI, the Iraqi government, foreign governments, and even nongovernmental organizations and the media. An Iraqi Christian told Human Rights Watch, “If you work in the government, they say you are an agent of the Americans. If you work with the Americans, they say you are a traitor.”212 A former Iraqi general, who joined the insurgency, said, “Every Iraqi or foreigner who works with the coalition is a target. Ministries, mercenaries, translators, businessmen, cooks or maids; it doesn’t matter the degree of collaboration. To sign a contract with the occupier is to sign your death warrant.”213

In June 2006, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sent a cable to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice that painted a dismal picture of life for Iraqi employees of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.214 It told both of a general deterioration of safety and quality of life, as well as an increase in sectarian violence and threat. The Iraqi embassy workers’ greatest fear, however, was that they would become known as employees of the U.S. embassy. The cable said that one employee requested press credentials after guards at the Green Zone checkpoint held up her embassy badge and loudly said, “Embassy.” Ambassador Khalilzad said, “Such information is a death sentence if heard by the wrong people.”215

An Orthodox Christian who worked as an interpreter and as a handyman for the U.S. military at the Falcon base near the Dura neighborhood in south Baghdad told Human Rights Watch that he kept his employment secret until September 10, 2004, when a car followed him as he left the base. The car pulled alongside him, and its driver and another passenger started shooting at him. 20 rounds hit his car, and he was hit in both legs and his abdomen, as well as a grazing wound on his back. He said that he was too afraid even to stay in the hospital longer than two days, so he went home to recover. After about half a year, he fled to Jordan in June 2005. “After the shooting, everyone knew I was working for the Americans,” he said. “I had a six-year-old son, and it became difficult to take him to school. I had to hide in different homes, like my uncle’s or my father-in-law’s. So I decided to come to Jordan to find a better life for my family.”216  

A Palestinian civil engineer who Human Rights Watch interviewed in the Trebil camp on the Iraqi side of the Jordanian border had worked for an American company when he was living in Baghdad. He said that he received threatening phone calls accusing him of being an American spy. On his way to work one morning, he was chased by men in a car that had been waiting for him outside his apartment. It was still dark, and Baghdad was having one of its power failures, so he was able to hide in the dark, but he was afraid to return to his home. He stayed in the offices of a company affiliated with his employer for about a month, and asked whether he might be able to relocate with his family to live at the Baghdad International Airport. His employer said that was not possible, and he felt compelled to resign.

He moved his family to a building inhabited entirely by Palestinians. After the Samarra’ bombing, there was a pitched battle at the building as heavily armed police from the Maghaweer “Raiders” sought to arrest young men in the building. The engineer commented, “After the Samarra’ events, both sides hate me. One terrorist group threatens me for working for the Americans. Then the Iraqi National Guard threatens me for being a terrorist [Palestinian].” The civil engineer left Baghdad on April 1. Sitting in a cramped tent, he closed the interview saying, “I can never go back to Iraq. I am hated by both sides.”217

Former Ba`thists and Their Families

At the other end of the spectrum from alleged collaborators are people who are persecuted for their alleged connections with the former regime. While some such Ba`thists were engaged in serious human rights violations for which they should be held accountable, vigilante attacks only perpetuate the cycle of abuse, and many with actual or imputed Ba`thist associations, including the children of Ba`th Party members, have a well-founded fear of persecution in Iraq.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a former high Ba`thist official, a retired police official, who may have persecuted others and who might, therefore, not qualify as a refugee himself. He fled first to Syria, where he was arrested and deported twice, and from there to Jordan. He said that his son was kidnapped and killed by the Badr Organization in November 2005. They came dressed as police officers and told him to go with them to the police station. “I think he was killed in revenge for me,” the elderly man said. “All the Ba`th Party families have the same problem.”218

A UNHCR-recognized refugee in Amman, a Shi`a who had been severely persecuted at the hands of the Ba`thist regime,219 told Human Rights Watch that he now fears return to Iraq because of his family’s alleged associations with the same government that persecuted him. “My brother told me this,” he said. “My father’s body was found, half decomposed, after he was missing for 17 days. His hands were bound, and there was a paper in his pocket saying he was killed for being an agent of the Saddam regime.” Men also came asking for his brother in Hilla, and stole his car. “My brother got away, but they would have killed him. I have good reason not to go back.”220

Persecution of Ba`thists does not appear to be limited to high-level party members and their families. A tailor who is unemployed and struggling to survive in Amman, told Human Rights Watch:

My father was an ordinary school teacher who was in the Ba`th Party. He was murdered three months after April 2003. I have five older brothers and one younger sister. Our family was wiped out… I have asked for the death certificates of my family who were killed… I am very depressed. I am so depressed that I cannot work… I don’t have money to renew my residency… I have no future.221

Professionals and Intellectuals

Iraqi intellectuals and professionals represent a distinct segment of de facto refugees in Jordan. An estimated 40 percent of Iraq’s professional class have left the country since April 2003, an average of 40 to 60 professionals per day.222 In March 2006, the Association of University Lecturers in Iraq reported that 182 university professors had been killed since 2003, and that 331 school teachers were killed in the first four months of 2006 alone.223 UNHCR calls the intimidation and murder of Iraqi intellectuals, professors, lecturers, and teachers “systematic.”224

The conflict has arguably been even more devastating for Iraq’s medical professionals. According to the Iraqi Medical Association, at least 2,000 Iraqi physicians have been murdered and 250 kidnapped since the 2003 invasion, and an estimated 12,000 (35 percent) of the 34,000 doctors registered in Iraq before 2003 have left the country during the past three years.225

A dermatologist who owned a private beauty center in Baghdad (quoted above) fled Iraq in November 2005 “because so many doctors had been killed.” In October 2004, his 16-year-old son was kidnapped and held for three weeks. “They knew I was a doctor with money,” he said. After paying the equivalent of a US$10,000 ransom, his son was released. Another son, a three-year-old, was killed during the 2003 U.S.-coalition bombing.226 “I was unable to work in the clinic, so I decided to close my clinic and come here,” he said. “I just closed up and came here.”227

The neurologist from Tal `Afar (also quoted above) is a Sunni. In March 2005, the Badr Organization put his name on a death list. He told Human Rights Watch:

Six other doctors and I were on the list. It said we were terrorists and should be killed. On the list were also lawyers, army officers, university professors, important tribesmen—about 700 names total from Tal `Afar. They put the list up on the walls of the city. Some of my friends saw the names. Policemen and militia people started to ask about us.228

The neurologist said that there used to be 34 doctors in his hospital in Tal `Afar. Now there are only five or six.

Iraqi Christians and Mandaeans

Although Christians and Mandaeans represent small religious minorities in Iraq, they appear to represent a disproportionately high fraction of the refugee population in Jordan.229 This could be because as a group they are subject to higher levels of targeted persecution than Muslims, but also because they turn to UNHCR in Jordan more frequently than their Muslim compatriots and thus are more visible as refugees.

At the start of the war, Christians comprised about 3 percent of Iraq’s population, numbering about 800,000 people. They have varied ethnic and denominational backgrounds, including Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, Roman and Syriac Catholics, Greek, Syriac, and Armenian Orthodox, and Anglicans. Most are of the professional class and are considered to be wealthier than the average Iraqi.230

Christians are linked to American and British forces in popular perception.231 Christians also were dominant in the liquor business during the government of Saddam Hussein. Following the fall of the Saddam Hussein government, militant Islamic groups firebombed and attacked many liquor stores and shot the shopkeepers.232 A declaration claiming responsibility for coordinated car bombings at five churches in Baghdad and Mosul on Sunday, August 1, 2004, said, “The American forces and their intelligence systems have found a safe haven and refuge among their brethren the grandchildren of monkeys and swine in Iraq. The graceful God has enabled us…to aim several blows at their dens, the dens of wickedness, corruption and Christianizing.”233

A Chaldean Christian who had lived his entire life in the Jadida quarter of Baghdad told Human Rights Watch:

I don’t feel comfortable to say what’s on my mind. We are Christians and a little different from the Shi`a. Our women dress differently. We left because our women couldn’t wear normal, Christian clothes any longer. Sorry, I can’t mention this in public, but there are instances where they are trying to pressure us to change our religion to Islam. I was saved from death twice. They harass us. I was afraid of everybody; I didn’t trust my neighbors. Knives are everywhere. Three times our house was attacked, and I had to replace the windows each time. They put an IED [improvised explosive device] near our house, and the entire neighborhood was affected. We also had stones thrown at our house bearing the message: “Change your religion.” They come and abduct people. People sell their homes in secret and leave before the militias know about it. Otherwise, they come at night and steal the money and kill you if they know you have the money from selling your house.234

There were about 30,000 Mandaeans in Iraq in the Saddam Hussein era, followers of a religion that regards John the Baptist as its principal prophet, but there may be as few as 13,000 remaining inside Iraq at the present time.235 Some Muslims do not regard Mandaeans as People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab, which includes Jews, Muslims and Christians), whom Islam protects, and some reports indicate that Mandaeans have been targeted for forced conversion.236 Mandaeans have traditionally worked as jewelers and goldsmiths, making them a particularly inviting target; because of their lack of traditional tribal or religious protective shields,237 and because their religion espouses a strict pacifism, they can be kidnapped or robbed with minimal resistance and, because of endemic lawlessness, impunity.238

A 50-year-old Mandaean goldsmith interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Amman was just such a target.239 In May 2005, unknown assailants attacked him next to his gold shop in Baghdad, shot him in the chest, and kidnapped his brother. “After this, we had strange phone calls from Islamic groups,” he recalled. “They said things like, ‘change your religion or you will be killed.’… We sold all our properties and gold in Baghdad. I was told the insecurity would affect our work, but I never believed they would kidnap us.” The family paid a ransom of US$80,000 to get his brother released. “The situation was very bad for us,” he said. “We had lots of kidnappings and rapes.” He recalled ten Mandaeans he knew who were killed in 2005. He and his brother left for Jordan in July 2005. Although they entered with only a three-month visa, he is too afraid to return to the border to renew his visa, and is now living illegally in Jordan. Although both brothers are highly skilled goldsmiths, they are unable to work in Jordan, as they do not want to work without permits and risk deportation.


Jordan has historically been among the most receptive countries toward Palestinian refugees, having granted automatic citizenship to Palestinian refugees on its territory at the time it claimed sovereignty over the West Bank (except for about 100,000 who originated from the Gaza Strip).240 New influxes from Iraq, however, have put Jordan’s historical tolerance toward refugees—and toward Palestinian refugees, in particular—under severe strain. Jordanian officials insist that Jordan’s treatment of 1.8 million Palestinian refugees fulfills for all time its international obligations toward Palestinian refugees, and they stressed to Human Rights Watch they would not admit a single Palestinian refugee from Iraq.241  

This attitude is most pronounced with regard to Palestinians attempting to enter Jordan from Iraq. After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime removed Palestinians’ primary source of protection in Iraq and made them vulnerable to groups that resented their presence, small groups of Palestinians began trying to enter Jordan. Except for the earliest arrivals in April 2003, Palestinians have been met with sealed borders and official refusal to contemplate their entry.

Human Rights Watch visited a group of 234 Palestinian refugees stranded on the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Jordan border, the bulk of whom had fled Iraq following reprisal violence directed against Palestinians in the aftermath of the February bombing of the Shi`a shrine in Samarra’.

The Palestinians talked with Human Rights Watch about their reasons for leaving Iraq.242 Refugees from Baladiyat, a Palestinian housing complex in eastern Baghdad, said that it had been targeted four times by mortar fire. Other refugees said that they had received threatening notes telling them to leave. For example, a group calling itself the Brigades of Judgment Day left a message warning all Palestinians living in the Duwar al-Shu’un complex in Baghdad to leave within ten days or “we will eliminate you all.”243

Refugees also told of friends, relatives, and neighbors who had been attacked on the street, simply for being Palestinian. One, Samir Khalid Al-Jayab, was killed the evening of the day of the Samarra’ shrine bombing, according to several of the refugees. He was a handicapped man with a prosthetic leg. Although most Palestinians from the Baladiyat neighborhood were too afraid to leave their homes, Khalid Al-Jayab went out to pick up his son from school. He had not arrived at the school yet when he was accosted by men who slashed him across the face with a sword or a knife. Then they shot 20 bullets into his body, according to the refugee account.244

Shortly after the completion of the Human Rights Watch mission, on May 9, Syria resolved the situation of the Palestinian refugees at the Jordanian border by admitting them into Syria. The following day, the Syrian authorities also admitted a group of 35 Palestinians who had fled directly from Baghdad to the Syrian border. Since then, however, Syria has also closed its border to Palestinians from Iraq, and as of the time of this report about 200 Palestinians are stranded in the no-man’s land at the Iraq-Syria border.245

In the meantime, more than 30,000 Palestinians remain under extreme threat in Baghdad with no clear avenue of escape, nor any country opening its doors to them. Human Rights Watch attempted to conduct phone interviews with Palestinians in Baghdad, but many were too fearful to talk. One man who had been arrested and taken to the Iraqi Ministry of Interior told Human Rights Watch on May 12, 2006, “Things are bad, very bad. I want to leave to any country where there is some kind of stability. I am looking for a quick solution. I cannot wait one or two months. Saudi Arabia is fine. Any place is fine.” When Human Rights Watch asked him to provide details of his arrest, he said, “Please, I am afraid to go outside, I cannot answer these questions.” He then switched to English and said, “I am very afraid. Do you understand me? Anyone could come to me to wipe me out, anything could happen to me,” before ending the interview. 246

Palestinians at Al-Ruwaishid Camp

Another group of 148 Palestinian refugees from Iraq lives in the Ruwaishid camp inside Jordan, some 85 kilometers from the Iraqi border. These refugees fled Iraq at the beginning of the war, in April 2003, and have been living in tents in a remote, harsh desert environment for three years.247 If a refugee camp were to be plopped down on the surface of the moon, it would look like al-Ruwaishid. It is a closed camp in a remote, desert location surrounded on all sides as far as one can see by a surface of rocks. There is virtually no rainfall in the area, which contributes to the camp’s desolate, bleak appearance. Water has to be trucked in, and camp residents complain that the drinking water is bad.

Al-Ruwaishid is guarded by the Badiya, Jordan’s border police, who control entry and exit. When residents need to leave the camp for a hospital stay in Amman, Badiya guards accompany them the entire time, and are posted in their hospital rooms. The local NGO that manages the camp, the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO), organizes a daily shuttle bus to take camp residents to the Ruwaishid town market. Camp residents said they have had no problem with local Jordanians. Relations between the camp residents and the Badiya guards, however, remain tense.

The refugees told Human Rights Watch that they felt safe, but complained about the lack of animal protein, the poor quality of the water (which is trucked in), poor health care, especially for serious, chronic diseases, the lack of job opportunities, the lack of higher educational opportunities, and that they often felt like prisoners. The desert environment is the backdrop to many of their complaints: people unable to sleep because the tents are so hot, no gardens or other vegetation, and a general malaise and sense that three years of their lives have been wasted in the desert. The refugees also said that that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had left the camp after putting up a school tent and providing a few school supplies, and that their children were not receiving an adequate education.

UNICEF-Amman informed Human Rights Watch that it initially set up the school to teach primary-school children basic literacy and arithmetic skills with teachers from the Ministry of Education, and that UNICEF provided tents, textbooks and other educational materials, teacher training, and incentives for the teachers. Subsequently, UNICEF said, teaching and administrative responsibilities were handed over to the refugees. UNICEF-Amman told Human Rights Watch, “UNICEF will continue to support the educational programme with CARE and UNHCR as the on-the-ground supervisors of the school.”248

At the height of the Ruwaishid refugee population in 2003, there were about 1,500 Palestinians living there. A royal decree allowed men with Jordanian wives to go to Amman (but did not authorize them to work).249 Many others returned voluntarily to Iraq, spurred by one-time UNHCR assistance of $800, which decreased by $100 for every month they stayed on in the camp.250

From 2003 until the time of the Human Rights Watch mission, only five Palestinian families had been resettled (to New Zealand). A major obstacle to the resettlement of Palestinians has been the objection of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to any durable solution that does not involve return to Palestine. Human Rights Watch learned as this paper was being written, however, that Canada had accepted 46 of the 148 Palestinians remaining at al-Ruwaishid.251 At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, UNHCR had said that it planned to close al-Ruwaishid by September 2006, though the refugee agency also said that it did not expect all the remaining residents to be resettled, leaving undecided what will happen to the residual camp population. On August 25, 2006, UNHCR announced that it would delay the closure of al-Ruwaishid camp until the end of the year, as they were still seeking resettlement locations for 337 refugees remaining in the camp, including the remaining Palestinians.252

Iranian Kurds

The Iranian Kurdish refugees who have fled toward Jordan are in two distinct groups. A group of 313 resides at al-Ruwaishid camp inside Jordan, after the authorities in 2005 closed al-Karama camp in the no man’s land (NML), the strip between the Jordanian and Iraqi checkpoints that one must pass in order to cross the border, and relocated them to al-Ruwaishid. Another group of 192 is living just inside the NML, very close to the Iraqi checkpoint.253 Although their origins are the same, their future is likely to be quite different.

Both groups originally fled from Iran to Iraq at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in the early 1980s and were among the 13,000 refugees living in the Tash camp on the outskirts of al-Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar Governorate for more than 20 years. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, armed gangs threatened them and many fled for Jordan, while others went to northern Iraq.254  

The Iranian Kurds in al-Ruwaishid live in the same conditions as the Palestinian refugees living there. Although the two groups have self segregated, there did not appear to be any particular tension between them. A Swedish government mission in April 2006 visited the Iranian Kurds at al-Ruwaishid to conduct resettlement interviews.255

The situation is much different for the Iranian Kurds at the no man’s land. Unlike the Iranian Kurds in al-Ruwaishid who arrived at the beginning of the war, the group at the NML came later, around January 2005, by which time Jordan had closed its border to them.256 UNHCR does not consider them for third-country resettlement because it believes they have an alternative durable solution in northern Iraq and do not need to be resettled outside the region. Where they are living in the NML (on the Iraqi side) is largely inaccessible to UNHCR-Amman. Because both Iraq and Jordan consider the NML outside of their territory, the NML is neither safe nor accessible for humanitarian aid. UNHCR has told the Iranian Kurdish refugees in the NML that their only “choice” is to go to northern Iraq where the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has offered to provide camps for them to live in and ultimately to integrate them into Kurdistan. UNHCR believes that this is a reasonable durable solution on their behalf.257

The leaders of the Iranian Kurds in the NML are adamantly opposed to this solution.258 They argue that agents of the Iranian Islamic Republic are active in northern Iraq and that they would not be safe there. Also, some of the NML residents did not come directly to Jordan from al-Tash. They first went to northern Iraq but left because they found living conditions there, including their personal safety, unacceptable.

The refugees were vague about recent specific threats or acts by Iranian agents in northern Iraq and appeared somewhat reluctant to criticize the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq outright. However, those who went from al-Tash to northern Iraq before coming to the NML had bitter memories of their time there. One of the Iranian Kurds who had lived for a year in a camp called Mujamma’ Sherwan near Diyala in northern Iraq said:

In northern Iraq it is so cold, but it was too much for the Kurdish authorities to give us water to drink or oil to keep us warm. The neighboring villagers did not help us. You might think that because we are Kurds they would welcome us, but I swear to God in the whole time we were in Kurdistan not one person said, “Welcome to Kurdistan.” They had nothing to do with us. These residential units were built on private lands, so the owner of these residential units would come to us and say…“You must leave.”… We talked with the officers responsible for Diyala, and their response was clear and frank. They said we must join the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—one of the two major Kurdish political parties in northern Iraq]… How could we leave the Democratic Party to join the PUK in exchange for water and electricity?259

UNHCR responds that thousands of Iranian Kurds from al-Tash have already gone to northern Iraq and have not reported significant problems there.260 The Iranian Kurds see that UNHCR is promoting the resettlement of their compatriots in al-Ruwaishid camp, who they knew from years together in al-Tash camp in Iraq, and that it, in fact, previously organized the resettlement of 387 Iranian Kurds from the NML; they wonder why they are not treated the same way.261 UNHCR says that the situation has changed because the KRG has agreed to take the Iranian Kurds and to grant them citizenship.262 The KRG’s authority to grant Iraqi citizenship is questionable, however.

On April 21, 2006, Human Rights Watch visited the Kawa camp in the Qoshtapa area of northern Iraq, the site where the Iranian Kurds from the NML would be accommodated if they agree to go to northern Iraq. At the time of the Human Rights Watch visit, 205 families (1,261 individuals) were living in the camp. The Kawa camp is administered by UNHCR, which provides tents, a clinic, and a school. Although the camp is guarded by Kurdish police from the Ministry of Interior, the Iranian Kurdish refugees are free to come and go. The KRG has agreed to provide every family with a 200 square meter plot of land in the Qoshtapa area in which to build a house. Contingent on UNHCR funding, the authorities are also planning to build a permanent school, hospital, and other amenities. While camp residents had their share of complaints, particularly the lack of means for gaining livelihoods, and expressed their preference to be resettled outside the region, they acknowledged that they were “100 percent more safe” than at the Tash camp, outside Ramadi, where they had been living previously.263

While, on its face, there is no reason to question the goodwill of the KRG to provide what appears to be a durable solution for the Iranian Kurdish refugees, it is very hard for anyone from the outside to understand fully the dynamics, the relationships, and the possible lurking dangers that could compromise the ability of this group of Iranian Kurds to integrate locally in northern Iraq. Therefore, a more creative approach might be in order.

The model for such an approach could be the Resettlement Opportunities for Vietnamese Returnees (ROVR) program that established eligibility for U.S. resettlement for Vietnamese who agreed to repatriate voluntarily from camps in southeast Asia where they had been rejected for refugee status.264 UNHCR could broker a similar arrangement whereby Sweden, New Zealand, and Ireland (the three countries that have resettled the bulk of the Iranian Kurdish refugees from al-Ruwaishid) would agree that they would consider for resettlement any of the 192 Iranian Kurds who voluntarily move to northern Iraq (not their country of origin) if they can show ongoing protection needs after moving to northern Iraq, demonstrate meaningful barriers to local integration, or establish family links to Sweden, New Zealand, or Ireland. Such a program would require the cooperation of the KRG, and, if necessary for transit purposes, Jordan, Syria, or Turkey.

195 Human Rights Watch interview with Mukhaimar F. Abu Jamous, Secretary-General, Ministry of Interior, and staff, Amman, May 4, 2006.

196 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Breen and staff, UNHCR, Amman, April 25, 2006.

197 See Human Rights Watch, A Face and a Name: Civilian Victims of Insurgent Groups in Iraq, vol. 17, no. 9(E), October 2005. See also UNHCR, Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Iraqi Asylum-Seekers, October 2005 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

198 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Breen and staff, UNHCR, Amman, April 25, 2006.

199 The Mandaean Human Rights Group/The Mandaean Society of America,“The Sabian Mandaeans Face a Critical Moment in Their History,” March 2005 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

200 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Breen and staff, UNHCR, Amman, April 25, 2006.

201 Edward Wong and Kirk Semple, “Civilians in Iraq Flee Mixed Areas as Attacks Shift,” New York Times, April 2, 2006.

202 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), “Iraq: Sectarian Violence, Military Operations Spark New Displacement, as Humanitarian Access Deteriorates,” May 23, 2006,$file/Iraq%20Overview%2023%20May%202006.pdf.

203 International Crisis Group, “The Next Sectarian War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict,” Middle East Report No. 52, February 27, 2006, (accessed October 17, 2006), p. 5.

204 Ibid. pp. 1-2.

205 Human Rights Watch, A Face and a Name, pp. 52-73.

206 Ibid. pp. 73-90.

207 Sharon Behn, “Iraq’s Best, Brightest Flee from Violence,” The Washington Times, June 26, 2006.

208 Human Rights Watch, A Face and a Name, pp. 93-98.

209 See Human Rights Watch, Flight from Iraq: Attacks on Refugees and Other Foreigners and their Treatment in Jordan, vol. 15, no. 4 (E), May 2003. Available at: http://Human Rights (accessed June 27, 2006).

210 Ibid.

211 Other relevant Human Rights Watch reports on Iraq are: Nowhere to Flee? The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq, July 2006; Leadership Failure: Firsthand Accounts of Torture of Iraqi Detainees by the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, September 2005; Getting Away with Torture: Command Responsibility for the U.S. Abuse of Detainees, April 2005; The New Iraq: Torture and Ill-treatment of Detainees in Iraqi Custody, January 2005; Claims in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq, August 2004; The Road To Abu Ghraib, June 2004; Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq, December 2003; Hearts and Minds: Post-war Civilian Casualties in Baghdad by U.S. Forces, October 2003; Climate of Fear: Sexual Violence and Abduction of Women and Girls in Baghdad, July 2003; Violent Response: the U.S. Army in al-Falluja, June 2003; Basra: Crime and Insecurity Under British Occupation, June 2003; Flight from Iraq: Attacks on Refugees and Other Foreigners and Their Treatment in Jordan, May 2003. Available at

212 Human Rights Watch interview (C-11), Amman, April 25, 2006.

213 Alix de la Grange, “The Liberation of Baghdad is not Far Away,” Asia Times Online, June 25, 2004. Available at (accessed June 27, 2006).

214 American Embassy, Baghdad, “Snapshots from the Office: Public Affairs Staff Show Strains of Social Discord,” cable R 1214302 Jun 06, June 2006. Available at: (accessed June 27, 2006).

215 Ibid. para. 11.

216 Human Rights Watch interview (P-1), Amman, April 21, 2006.

217 Human Rights Watch interview (B-24), Trebil camp, Iraq, April 30, 2006.

218 Human Rights Watch interview (P-11), Amman, April 25, 2006.

219 He had been a driver for a female cousin of Saddam Hussein who was murdered. He was arrested as a suspect in the plot to assassinate her, and was severely tortured and imprisoned in horrible conditions. He claimed to Human Rights Watch that he was innocent of any involvement in the plot. “The headline of my story is huge,” he said, “but my role with Saddam was very small. I was only the driver of a taxi that belonged to his relative.” Human Rights Watch interview (B-7), Amman, April 27, 2006.

220 Human Rights Watch interview (B-7), Amman, April 27, 2006.

221 Human Rights Watch interview (C-8), Amman, April 24, 2006.

222 Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), “Iraq: Higher Education Ministry Tempts Professionals with Security, Higher Salaries,” January 31, 2006. Available at (accessed October 16, 2006).

223 Oliver Poole, “Killings Lead to Brain Drain from Iraq,” The Daily Telegraph, April 17, 2006. The statistics on killings of university professors are not entirely consistent. The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education reported in August 2006 that 180 professors had been killed since February and that at least 3,250 had fled the country. See “Iraq: Threatened Teachers Fleeing Country,” IRIN News, August 24, 2006. Available at: (accessed August 29, 2006).

224 UNHCR Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Iraqi Asylum Seekers, para. 41.

225 James Palmer, “Frequent Targets of Violence: Iraqi Physicians Flee in Droves,” The Seattle Times, April 4, 2006.

226 See also Human Rights Watch, Off Target: The Conduct of the War and Civilian Casualties in Iraq, December 2003,

227 Human Rights Watch interview (P-7), Karak, April 23, 2006.

228 Human Rights Watch interview (P-6), Karak, April 23, 2006.

229 The Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project estimates that upwards of 120,000 of the Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey are ChaldoAssyrians. See Christians represent a disproportionate percentage of the registered refugee population in Syria—36 percent. See UNHCR, “Background Information on the Situation of Non-Muslim Religious Minorities in Iraq,” October 2005, note 11 (on file with Human Rights Watch).

230 Human Rights Watch, A Face and a Name, p. 46. See also, Lawrence F. Kaplan, “Who Will Save Iraq’s Christians?” The New Republic, March 28, 2006.

231 “Iraq’s Persecuted Christians,” Time Magazine, September 20, 2004.

232 Annia Ciezadlo, “Iraq’s Christians Consider Fleeing as Attacks on Them Rise,” Christian Science Monitor, July 13, 2004.

233 The declaration was signed by the Committee of Planning and Follow-up in Iraq. The translation is from the website (accessed February 22, 2005). The declaration is also quoted in Human Rights Watch, A Face and a Name, pp. 49-50.

234 Human Rights Watch interview (C-23), Amman, April 20, 2006.

235 Kate Clark, “Iraq Chaos Threatens Ancient Faith,” BBC News, Damascus, September 20, 2005. See also, UNHCR, “Background Information on the Situation of Non-Muslim Religious Minorities in Iraq.”

236 John Bolender, “Worse Off Now Than under Saddam: The Plight of Iraq’s Mandaeans,” Weekend Edition, January 8/9, 2005, at See also, UNHCR, “Background Information on the Situation of Non-Muslim Religious Minorities in Iraq,” pp. 4-5.

237 UNHCR Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Iraqi Asylum Seekers, p. 11, paras. 34-35.

238 See Mandaean Human Rights Group, “The Sabian Mandaeans Face a Critical Moment in Their History.”

239 Human Rights Watch interview (P-16), Amman, April 27, 2006.

240 According to the Jordanian nationality law of the year 1954, “Any person with previous Palestinian nationality except the Jews before the date of May 14, 1948 residing in the Kingdom during the period from December 20, 1949 and February 16, 1954 is a Jordanian citizen.” (From Jordan’s Department of Palestinian Affairs, available at: “All Palestine refugees in Jordan have full Jordanian citizenship with the exception of about 100,000 refugees originally from the Gaza Strip who in the 1967 war. Up to 1967 Gaza was administered by Egypt. They are eligible for temporary Jordanian passports, which do not entitle them to full citizenship rights such as the right to vote and employment with the government.” Ayman Halasa, “Refugee protection in Jordan,” Local Focus, RSDWatch, April 20, 2005, available at: (accessed October 17, 2006).

241 The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has registered 1,780,701 Palestinian refugees in Jordan, as of March 31, 2005. UNRWA statistics at: (accessed June 22, 2006).

242 These interviews are the foundation of a separate Human Rights Watch report, Nowhere to Flee? The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq, vol. 18, no. 4(E), September 2006,

243 Copy of flyer on file with Human Rights Watch, unofficial translation.

244 Human Rights Watch interview (B-16), Trebil camp, April 30, 2006.

245 Email from UNHCR-Damascus to Human Rights Watch, July 7, 2006. See also IRIN, “Syria: More Palestinian Refugees from Iraq Arrive at Border,” May 18, 2006.

246 Human Rights Watch telephone interview (C-24), Baghdad, May 12, 2006.

247 See Human Rights Watch, Flight from Iraq and Nowhere to Flee?

248 Email from UNICEF-Amman to Human Rights Watch, July 17, 2006.

249 Human Rights Watch interview (P-20), Trebil camp, Iraq, April 30, 2006 and Human Rights Watch interview (P-26), al-Ruwaishid camp, May 1, 2006.

250 UNHCR says that the voluntary repatriation encashment program in 2004 was not meant as an incentive, but rather as a $100 per month per family rent subsidy, good for the year 2004, which decreased every month it was not used. The following year, UNHCR changed to a lump sum of $400 per family, regardless of the month of departure.

251 “Jordan: Canada to Resettle 46 Palestinian Refugees,” IRIN News, October 10, 2006. Available at (accessed October 15, 2006).

252 “Jordan: Closure of Ruweishid Camp Delayed,” IRIN News, August 23, 2006. Available at (accessed August 29, 2006).

253 Both the number of Iranian Kurds at al-Ruwaishid camp and at the NML listed here are at the time of the Human Rights Watch visit in late April/early May 2006.

254 See Human Rights Watch, Flight from Iraq. A small number of Iranian Kurds remain at al-Tash.

255 Human Rights Watch researchers saw a Swedish official in al-Ruwaishid on April 30, 2006 and spoke briefly with him.

256 Mara Schiavocampo, “Iraq War Refugees Trapped in Limbo Between Countries,” ABC News, Amman, May 11, 2006.

257 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Breen and staff, UNHCR, Amman, April 25, 2006.

258 Human Rights Watch interview with camp leaders, NML camp, April 29, 2006. Also, Fax message, “To Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch,” from “the committee of the Iranian Kurdish refugees between the border of Jordan and Iraq (NML camp),”April 13, 2006 (On file with Human Rights Watch).

259 Human Rights Watch interview (C-15) NML, April 23, 2006.

260 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Breen and staff, UNHCR, Amman, May 4, 2006.

261 “Iraq: no man’s land refugees,” UNHCR Briefing Note, December 10, 2004. Available at: (accessed July 14, 2006).

262 Human Rights Watch interview with Robert Breen and staff, UNHCR, Amman, April 25, 2006.

263 Human Rights Watch interview with camp leaders at al-Kawa camp, northern Iraq, April 21, 2006.

264 Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff, David A. Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy, Fourth Edition (St. Paul: West Group, 1998), pp. 1014-15.