Iraq: Thousand Stranded Refugees Face Persecution Without Urgent Protection

The refugees left the UNHCR administered al Tash camp and have been in the 'neutral zone' for at least a week. They have allegedly cited fears of looting, attacks and a dire humanitarian situation as reasons for leaving the camp. UNHCR withdrew all international staff from Iraq before the outbreak of the war. Amnesty International is urging US/UK coalition forces to address the situation of refugees, asylum-seekers and third country nationals in Iraq.

The organisation is also calling on the Jordanian authorities to allow all those waiting at the border entry into the country, so as to establish their entitlement to international protection or to ensure their safe transfer to their countries of residence.

Amnesty International said: 'As the occupying powers the US and UK have responsibility under international law to protect all civilians from human rights abuses, and particular attention must be paid to vulnerable groups such as refugees and other foreign nationals.

'UN agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are key to finding durable solutions to these people's plight. These agencies must be able freely to access vulnerable people in Iraq. There must be public guarantees and a real commitment on the ground to ensuring that they will be protected.'

Amassing at the Syrian border, there is an unknown number of Syrian and other nationals who have fled their homes after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government. Many are believed to fear persecution as a result of being perceived as affiliated with the previous government. Some of them have been living as refugees under the protection of Iraq for decades, and now are being refused entry to Syria.

Amnesty International said: 'These people are caught between a rock and a hard place. The reason behind their flight is the volatile situation in most of Iraq, but going back might mean a return to persecution. At least seven Syrian nationals have already been arrested after their return.

There is no doubt that many foreign nationals living in Iraq would be at risk of serious human rights violations if they were deported from Iraq to their country of origin, even though many of them may not have been formally given status as refugees.'

Jamal Mahmud al-Wafa'i was arrested at the border checkpoint near Hosaiba on 18 April. He had gone into exile in Iraq in the early 1980s. Six other returning exiles affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood were also arrested at the Syrian-Iraqi border: Fayzah 'Ali Shihab, Maha Ahmad Qarah Qash, Mayyadah Muhammad Ghassan Benqasli, Fathiyyah Rajab Damur, Muhammad 'Adnan Ahmad Madlaj and Muhammad Ahmad Qashush. It is unclear whether these six people were arrested after being allowed entry into Syria or at a border check-point.

Amnesty International fears that the detained returnees may be tortured or ill-treated, given their opposition to the Syrian government through the unauthorised Muslim Brotherhood Organisation, whose armed faction was involved in violent confrontations with the Syrian security forces in the late 1970s and 1980s. Syrian opposition figures returning home voluntarily or after being forcibly returned by other governments are especially in danger of arrest, torture or ill-treatment. In 2002, a former member of the unauthorised Muslim Brotherhood Organisation who voluntarily returned from exile to Syria died in custody.

Background

Prior to the conflict, Iraq was host to more than 128,000 refugees from other countries including around 23,000 refugees from Iran. Around 19,000 resided in the government-controlled areas of Iraq. Around 4,000 Iranian Kurds were living in areas of northern Iraq under the control of the two Kurdish political parties, but reportedly around 1,000 have fled to Turkey since early 2001.

There is also a large Palestinian refugee population in Iraq, some estimates say over 90,000. Iraq also hosts smaller number of refugees from other countries, including Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia and is host to tens of thousands of Egyptians.

Around 60 of those in the 'neutral zone' between Iraq and Jordan, have been recognized in other third countries in Europe or North America as refugees or have been granted another residential status. Many of them are reportedly affiliated to the People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI).

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