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Former Iraqi bodyguard Muhannad Yousif who sought a new life in SwedenImage: AP

Sorry, We're Closed

Sonia Phalnikar
July 13, 2007

Experts have criticized Germany's policies towards Iraqi asylum-seekers as too restrictive. Fearful of a refugee influx, however, other European nations have started tightening their asylum rules.


"When you go out in Baghdad, there's a 50 percent chance you may never come home," said Murad Atshan, an Iraqi filmmaker living in Germany.

Anyone who follows news of daily suicide bombings, a bloody insurgency and sectarian violence in the Iraqi capital will probably nod in agreement at the statement. German authorities in Munich, however, rejected Atshan's application for asylum a year ago, saying he didn't give a good enough reason for seeking protection.

The 27-year-old has since been confined to a refugee center in a tiny village in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, near the Swiss border.

While German authorities are deciding what to do with him, Atshan isn't allowed to leave the district or work.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "I didn't come here looking for a good life, I just wanted to be somewhere safe. But this is no normal life."

In addition to worrying about his family back home in Baghdad, Atshan is grappling with getting used to life in a small foreign village.

"I'm used to living in big cities," he said. "I can't even go to the movies here."

Living in limbo

Atshan's case is depressingly familiar in the country whose complicated asylum and refugee laws have come under increasing criticism from aid and refugee groups. Germany is home to an estimated 73,000 Iraqis.

Iraker fürchtet sich vor der drohenden Abschiebung
An Iraqi family at a refugee home in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Experts say German asylum rules date back to the 1990s when tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein's dictatorship applied for and easily received asylum status in Germany on grounds of political persecution.

"The moment Saddam was toppled in 2003, however, the German government sent out letters to thousands of Iraqis saying their asylum status would be revoked since the persecutor was now gone," said Bernd Mesovic of campaign group Proasyl. "It's as if the authorities didn't watch television and didn't know what's happening in Iraq."

Last year, German authorities stripped 8,189 refugees of their asylum status. This week, Human Rights Watch slammed Germany's move earlier this year to revoke the refugee status of over 18,000 Iraqis.

"Losing your asylum status has serious repercussions," said Marianne Heuwagen, head of the German section of Human Rights Watch, because it can lead to reduced social benefits and severe restrictions on work, mobility and unification with family members.

"In others words, it leaves you in limbo and with an uncertain future," she said.

Civil war not asylum-worthy

German authorities admit that Iraqis seeking asylum must now prove they face personal risk in their homeland. General instability or civil war is not reason enough to grant asylum though it is sufficient to put a freeze on deportations.

At the same time, revoking asylum status does not automatically mean Iraqis will be sent back home, said Claudia Moebus, spokeswoman for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF).

Neue Anschläge im Irak
Iraqis in Baghdad have to live with daily car and suicide bombingsImage: AP

"Each refugee has the right to appeal and each individual case is carefully considered before any decision is taken," Moebus said.

She added that German authorities had also reversed their recent decision to strip 18,000 Iraqis of their refugee status with the exceptions of criminals and those who returned to northern Iraq, which is considered relatively stable. She declined to give exact figures.

Liberal Sweden puts up barriers

Germany is not alone in its restrictive attitude towards Iraqi asylum-seekers.

Experts point out that most EU nations remain reluctant to take in Iraqi asylum-seekers even though those who knock on their doors make up only a fraction of the estimated four million displaced since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Neighboring Jordan and Syria have taken in two million, while another two million remain uprooted within Iraq.

Last year, just about 20,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in the bloc.

Sweden has thus far stood out among Europeans for having the most welcoming attitude and taking in the highest numbers of Iraqi asylum-seekers -- some 9,000 alone last year. Many of the refugees in Sweden have joined existing Iraqi communities in towns such as Malmo on the southwest coast.

Last week, however, the country, which has long called on other EU members to shoulder the burden, said it's tightening its asylum rules and will forcibly deport Iraqis who are denied permission to stay.

"Asylum a dangerous lottery"

"Asylum in Europe has become a dangerous lottery," said Richard Williams of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), referring to the disparate practices among EU nations on granting asylum.

"Generally every European country is afraid of being seen as too attractive to asylum-seekers."

Iraker telefoniert mit Freunden im Irak
Iraqi refugee Djabar Lafte Latif who lives in Saxony-Anhalt in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In addition to German and Swedish restrictions, Britain, in particular, and Denmark have sent Iraqis back home. Experts are also concerned that the policies of these countries are not in accordance with international treaties such as the Geneva Convention.

In addition to plodding moves towards a harmonized EU asylum policy -- a goal hoped to be achieved by 2010 -- some say European leaders need to do more to sell the idea of asylum on humanitarian grounds.

"Asylum and migration remain major political fault lines in Europe," Williams said. "Politicians must take the lead to explain global realities to the public."

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