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Uncertainty and injustice for minority refugees from Iraq – new report

24 September 2009

Refugees from Iraq’s minorities face insecurity and risk losing their religious and cultural identity as they try to seek refuge in neighbouring countries and Western Europe, a report by Minority Rights Group International says.

In a landmark new report on the situation of Iraqi uprooted minorities, MRG says that many of the people who flee Iraq undertake very dangerous journeys to get to Europe often only to be met with restrictive asylum policies, discrimination and in some cases forcible return.

A disproportionate number of those fleeing Iraq – somewhere between 15-64 per cent, depending on the country of refuge – are minorities, including Christians, Circassians, Sabian Mandaeans, Shabaks, Turkmen and Yazidis.

‘Minorities are leaving Iraq because they are specifically targeted for attack due to their religion and culture, but getting out of the country is no guarantee of their safety and security,’ says Carl Söderbergh, MRG’s Director of Policy and Communications.

‘Many European countries are now rejecting asylum applications and returning people to Iraq despite the fact that attacks on minorities have actually increased in some areas,’ he adds.

Sweden, for instance, has begun returning to Iraq a number of rejected asylum seekers including – Christians on the grounds that some parts of Iraq are safe to go back to. The UK and other European countries have also begun enforced returns of rejected asylum-seekers.

The integration policies of certain asylum countries also adversely affect Iraqi minorities. Dispersal policies, for instance, which divide refugees of the same nationality have a serious impact on minorities, who need to remain together as a community to protect their cultural identity and religious practices.

‘Some communities like Mandaeans, who number a few thousand globally, stand to lose many of their religious and cultural practices, as they are spread across and within countries. They are at risk of cultural eradication,’ says Söderbergh.

Of Iraq’s neighbours, Syria and Jordan are the most common destinations for refugees, and this is also the case for minorities. UNHCR estimates that up to 2 million Iraqis have fled the country, with approximately 1.1 million in Syria and 450,000 in Jordan.

Although Jordan and Syria have welcomed a large number of Iraqi refugees, many live in a state of limbo as they are unable to secure residency or work permits. Both countries have since 2007 begun to tighten their visa policies, making it increasingly harder for Iraqis to live there legally.

The report includes a series of testimonies from Iraqi minority refugees, who describe the violence and trauma suffered before they fled the country and explain their fear and reluctance to return.

‘We will never go back, it is impossible. We will suffer death if we go back … If you stay in Iraq, you will convert to Islam or be killed. For that reason, the future is dead for us there,’ says an Iraqi Mandaean seeking asylum in Södertälje, Sweden.

Notes to editors

  • For more information on the situation of minorities in Iraq see ‘Assimilation, Exodus, Eradication: Iraq’s minority communities since 2003‘ and the Iraq country entry on MRG’s online World Directory of Minorities.
  • The report is based on research conducted in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Sweden. It includes a series of testimonies from refugees and representatives of minority communities.
  • Below are some key points on the situation of Iraqi minorities in UK, Germany and Sweden.
  • Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is a non-governmental organisation working to secure the rights of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide.


Sweden currently hosts the second largest number of Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers within the European Union, just over 32,000. Of the 40,500 asylum claims made by Iraqi refugees within industrialized countries in 2008, just over 6,000 were made in Sweden. The small town of Södertälje, Sweden had at one point taken more Iraqi refugees than the whole of the USA and Canada combined.

The Swedish Migration Board has ruled that Sabian Mandaeans are a particularly vulnerable and exposed group in Iraq, and that a lower threshold is required in their cases when granting refugee status. However, the ruling is intended only as guidance. The ruling is reportedly implemented very inconsistently. There are cases where the Swedish Migration Board refuses to accept self-identification: one ethnic Shabak complained that he was classified only as a Shi’a Muslim and not as he would have preferred.

Unlike the United Kingdom, Sweden has no dispersal policy for refugees and asylum-seekers, who are relatively free to chose where to settle. Subsequently Södertälje is home to a large Assyrian community that is able to organize more effectively to support each other and provides familiarity to new arrivals. The Swedish government does operate a year-long programme of support with integration, in which meeting religious and ethnic needs is a specific element. A number of refugees have commented on how they have benefitted from such programmes.

An Iraqi-Swedish Memorandum of Understanding makes clear that the option of ‘voluntary’ return is being offered to those who have been rejected and have no other option. The MoU states that if they do not choose to return voluntarily, they, ‘may be ordered to leave Sweden as an option of last resort’ which raises questions concerning the voluntary nature of any such deportations. The MoU was followed by a Swedish Migration Court of Appeal ruling that considers returns to central and southern Iraq as acceptable because it holds that there is no armed conflict there.

United Kingdom

The number of Iraqis seeking asylum within the European Union doubled between 2006 and 2007, to 38,286. The United Kingdom’s approval rate for successful applicants currently stands at 13 per cent, which places it at the lower end of the scale within the EU. There has been a steady decrease in successful applications since 2003 when the figure was 55 per cent. The Refugee Council, a non-governmental organization working to support refugees and asylum-seekers in the UK, advises all rejected asylum-seekers to appeal; around 50 per cent of those that do see their rejections overturned.

Figures show that the United Kingdom has seen little change in the number of applications made, receiving 2,030 claims in 2008 compared with 2,075 claims in 2007. The United Kingdom Border Agency’s guidance note on asylum claims from Iraq recognizes serious human rights violations being committed in Iraq, including, ‘discrimination against women, ethnic and religious minorities.’ The note documents violations against Christian minorities at length but does not mention any other minority group by name, an omission that may enforce the perception that Christians are the only persecuted minority in Iraq, whilst ignoring other suffering ethnic or religious minorities.

‘The response of the UK government to date, in particular, has been notably poor. The resettlement screening and administration process should be speeded up considerably’ says Minority Rights Group International. For the financial year of 2008-2009 Britain has a target of resettling 750 individuals, 500 Iraqis and some Palestinians ex-Iraq. This is fewer than Canada (10,600-12,000 places, approximately 30 per cent for Iraqis) and Sweden (1,900 places with 800 set aside for selection missions to Syria and Jordan). It is uncertain that the UK can meet this target, in the previous four years the UK has reached its target once. In 2008 it was reported that only five Iraqi refugees were resettled in the UK. Most worryingly, the UK Asylum and Immigration tribunal ruled in April 2008 that Iraqi refugees could be returned to war-torn regions of Iraq.

Also noteworthy is the policy of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office to locate asylum-seekers and refugees in diverse locations around the country in order to reduce strains on local services. However, this often weakens bonds and impacts negatively upon smaller communities who, in being dispersed, find their particular way of life subsequently suffers.


Figures for 2008 show that 40,500 asylum claims were made in industrialized countries by Iraqi refugees, of which 6,697 claims were made in Germany; now home to nearly 40,000 Iraqi refugees, the largest single population in Europe. In March 2009, Germany organized the resettlement of 2,500 Iraqis, it was widely reported in the press at the time that the majority of those resettled were Christians.

The government stated that priority for resettlement was given to, ‘refugees from persecuted minorities, vulnerable cases with specific medical needs, traumatized victims of persecution as well as female-headed households who have family in Germany’, yet there appears a strong bias towards Christians based on the notion that they will integrate better into the host society.

Germany began revoking the refugee status of Iraqi refugees that arrived during the time of Saddam Hussein’s rule, shortly after his fall. After considerable criticism, it suspended revocations for some minorities, including religious minorities. Germany has suggested specific measures to resettle Iraqi Christians, and pushed for such measures at the European Union in April 2008. This was resisted at the time by the Slovenian presidency which proposed measures to provide protection for all of Iraq’s minorities, regardless of religion.

Germany currently hosts some 40,000 Yazidis; some forecast that with the exodus of Yazidis from Iraq, Germany will soon house the majority of the global Yazidi community. Despite this, Germany continues to document the Yazidis (a distinct religious minority) as Zoroastrians on the basis that the Yazidi religion is thought to share historical links and origins with Zoroastrianism. This not only violates the rights of the Yazidis to identify their faith in the way they prefer but also might restrict their access to services.