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'Iraqis need safe refuge'

Stephanie Höppner / cmkAugust 9, 2014

Human rights activists have called for immediate help for the persecuted minorities in northern Iraq. For those who don't share the ideology of the "Islamic State" militants, the situation is desperate.

Irak Kurden Flüchtlinge in einer Kirche in Irbil
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Up to 50,000 religious minorities are trapped in the mountains in northern Iraq as hundreds of thousands flee the advance of the "Islamic State" militant group (IS). According to eyewitness reports, fighters on Thursday (07.08.2014) took over the town of Qaraqosh where most of the approximately 50,000 inhabitants are Christians from the Syrian Catholic or Orthodox Churches.

Earlier this week, extremists marched on the city of Sinjar, one of the main settlements of the minority Yazidi community. According to a Yazidi spokeswoman, 500 men were killed in the attack. Thousands of families are said to be roaming the mountains without supplies and water. At least 40 children have already died from dehydration, according to the United Nations.

Leaving their cars behind at checkpoints, people have mostly fled on foot to the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil - among them the elderly, pregnant women and children. They join those fleeing from the Christian village of Tel Keppe, also occupied by IS militants. The US has launched airstrikes against IS fighters to prevent a humanitarian disaster and stop the advance of the extremists. On Friday (08.08.2014), German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced plans to increase humanitarian aid to 2.9 million euros ($3.8 million).

'Global outcry and humanitarian aid'

Propagandabild IS-Kämpfer
A propaganda image shows "Islamic State" militants, a lethal threat for religious minorities in IraqImage: picture-alliance/abaca

In an interview with DW, Thuringia's State Premier Christine Lieberknecht condemned the actions of the militants, calling for "a global outcry over these unspeakable and inhuman acts."

At the same time, she said Germany had to do more and be willing to take in persecuted Christians, and ensure immediate assistance through better cooperation with aid agencies. "We must find possibilities for these refugees to quickly find refuge in safe countries like Germany," she said.

However, German relief organization Pro Asyl believers these demands aren't enough. "We must now think about setting up an asylum program for Iraqis - similar to what has been established for the Syrians," said spokesman Bernd Mesovic, pointing out that it took Germany a long time to accept Syrian refugees.

In June, after millions of Syrians had already taken flight from their war-torn homes, Germany announced plans to take in another 10,000 Syrian refugees. But only a fraction of that number has already arrived in Germany. There are many bureaucratic hurdles along the way, missing documents that have hindered departure, for instance. This experience should not be repeated for the persecuted streaming out of northern Iraq, said Mesovic.

'Refugees should not be left to their own devices'

"We should prepare early to take in refugees, and also relieve those countries on the frontlines," said Mesovic. Countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which have already taken in the flood of refugees from Syria, are not ready to take on additional people from Iraq. There are already 1.1 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, and 60,0000 in Jordan.

Bernd Mesovic Pro Asyl
Pro Asyl's Mesovic: 'Refugees should not have to resort to traffickersImage: Pro Asyl

Mesovic said that the bureaucratic process of taking in refugees should be simplified in those neighboring countries, because the longer refugees live in a desperate situation, the more likely they are to attempt a risky escape on their own.

"I'll say it bluntly: If it takes too long for Syrian refugees, they will scrape their money together and buy their way onto a refugee boat in the Aegean, facing the very real risk of death or detention upon arrival."

That fear is based on alarming numbers: Since 2000, according to research by the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung," approximately 23,000 refugees have died trying to reach Europe.