The United Nations refugee agency today deplored Sweden’s decision this week to forcibly repatriate a group of 20 Iraqis, including five people from the minority Christian community who are originally from Baghdad.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said one of those expelled from Sweden had told its staff in Baghdad that he had fled Iraq in 2007 after militiamen threatened to kill him. He said his asylum application was rejected three times in 2008.
“UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country,” Melissa Fleming, UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva, told reporters.
The agency said the repatriations are being carried out at a time when its five offices in Iraq are reporting a significant rise in the number of Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul to the Kurdistan Regional Government Region (KRG) and Ninewa plains.
Since the attack on a church in Baghdad on 31 October and subsequent targeted attacks, the Christian communities in Baghdad and Mosul have started a slow but steady exodus out of the two areas.
Some 1,000 families have arrived in KRG and Ninewa since the beginning of November, according to UNHCR.
“We have heard many accounts of people fleeing their homes after receiving direct threats. Some were able to take only a few belongings with them. Our offices have distributed emergency assistance and are in contact with the local authorities to ensure that the recently displaced Christians are supported and assisted,” Ms. Fleming said.
UNHCR offices in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are reporting a growing number of Iraqi Christians arriving and contacting the agency for registration and help, she said.
“Churches and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are warning us to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks. Many of the new arrivals explain that they left in fear as a result of the church attack on 31 October,” said Ms. Fleming.
In Syria, some 133 families or 300 individuals have registered with UNHCR since November, the majority of whom fled Iraq following the October church attack. The number of those registered in Jordan in October and November has doubled from the same period last year. Some 57 Christian refugees were registered in Jordan in September, compared to 98 and 109 in October and November.
“UNHCR recognizes the efforts the Iraqi Government is making to try to protect all its citizens, including vulnerable minority groups such as the Christians.
“The Iraqi Government has reiterated its commitment to increase the protection of places of worship. While overall civilian casualties are lower this year than last, it appears that minority groups are increasingly susceptible to threats and attacks,” said Ms. Fleming.
The agency reiterated its position that asylum-seekers who originate from the Iraqi governorates of Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Salah-al-Din, as well as from Kirkuk province, should not be deported and should benefit from international protection.