UN refugee agency spotlights plight of Iraqi Christian couple in European limbo
The United Nations refugee agency is calling attention to the plight of an Iraqi Christian couple that has been bounced back and forth between European countries while trying to reconnect with their son and other relatives.
While not releasing names in order to protect them, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a news release that the pair, who are members of Iraq's embattled Chaldean Christian community, have been in and out of detention centres in Greece and Belgium, where their relatives live with refugee status.
“They are currently being held in the Steenokkerzeel Detention Centre 127-bis near Brussels Airport, unable to communicate with staff, confused about the reasons for their four-month detention and angry about their treatment as asylum seekers,” the agency said.
UNHCR, which has called on the Belgian authorities to allow the couple to remain, said their case reflects the problems that many asylum seekers, especially Iraqis, are facing under the European Union's (EU) 2003 Dublin Regulation, which identifies the EU member state responsible for examining an asylum claim.
In practice, the clause often leads to people being held in detention in one European country prior to being sent to another European country considered responsible for their claim. The Iraqi couple have been going back and forth between Greece and Belgium at a time when returning home is not an option.
Originally from Zakho in northern Iraq, the couple lived for 30 years in Baghdad, running a grocery store and raising their four children, according to UNHCR, which said Christians in the capital faced increasing difficulties after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The family fled after armed men raided their home in December 2004 and threatened to kill them if they did not produce $50,000 within 10 days.
In Greece, they were detained for three months on the grounds of illegal entry. They applied for asylum during this time, but this was rejected in the first instance decision – as has been the case for the majority of asylum applicants in Greece in recent years, UNHCR said.
Asylum seekers who are served with a negative first instance decision in Greece can usually appeal within 30 days, but this was not possible for the couple because the Mediterranean nation has suspended all decision-making on Iraqi cases at the appeal level since 2003.
In November 2005, the couple paid a human trafficker to bring them to Belgium, where their son is about to become a Belgian citizen. On arrival, they asked for asylum. Again, they were detained and were sent back to Greece, where they were held for two weeks at the airport.
Belgium argued that Greece was responsible for their asylum claim under the Dublin rule. But the regulation also states that a member state can take over processing of a case for humanitarian reasons, particularly those based on family considerations, the refugee agency said.
The Greek authorities again issued an order for the couple to leave the territory – on the grounds that their case had been ruled on and was now closed. With the help of a local priest, they tried to apply for asylum again. They were told they had only been freed because of their age and must leave the country immediately, even though they had nowhere to go.
Earlier this year, they paid another "agent" to get them back into Belgium and they were detained on arrival at Brussels Airport on 7 February. “They are now hoping that a hearing into their case due on Thursday will end their ordeal and reunite the family,” said UNHCR.
The agency estimates that some 2.2 million Iraqis have fled their country since 2003, with most finding refuge in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. A few have made their way to Europe. Last year, 20,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in EU countries, nearly half of them in Sweden. In Belgium, there were just 695 applications from Iraqis in 2006, and 233 during the first four months of this year.