Over a million Iraqis live in Syria and if the situation there worsens, they may start returning home. Iraq’s Minister of Displacement and Migration tells NIQASH how he plans to deal with them, and other Iraqi refugees and deportees from the EU.
The Iraqi Minister of Displacement and Migration, Dindar Najman Doski, has a lot on his files. His Ministry deals with Iraqis who are fleeing from Arab Spring conflicts around the region and Iraqis that are being deported from other countries as well as cases of internal displacement - Iraqi families that have been forced to leave their hometowns for one reason or another and are now refugees within their own country.
Speaking to NIQASH, Doski detailed plans to deal with any potential influx of Iraqi refugees from Syria, his ministry’s hopes for displaced families inside Iraq and what sort of pressure the Iraqis are putting on western governments who wish to deport Iraqis from their own lands.
NIQASH: Let us start with the so-called "Arab spring". How many Iraqis have you helped return to Iraq from affected countries where they may have been in danger?
Dindar Najman Doski: We evacuated around 3,000 Iraqis from countries where there were protests, they returned to Iraq voluntarily. There were 360 families who were able to make it to Tripoli’s airport in Libya and they were evacuated under very difficult circumstances. Iraq does not have an embassy in Libya and communicating with the Iraqis there was very difficult. There were many empty seats on the two planes that brought those Iraqis back to Iraq but those families were the only ones able to make it to the airport.
We also evacuated 12 families from Algeria and 15 from Tunisia. From Egypt, we brought home 500 Iraqis on two planes and from Yemen we evacuated 300. We were ready to evacuate any Iraqi who wished to return to Iraq and many of the Iraqis that did, were assisted by humanitarian organizations too - especially those who were in Libya.
NIQASH: Did you also assist the Iraqis who returned home financially, or in other ways?
Doski: We gave US$400 to each family when there was a crisis in the Arab Spring countries they were in. And we helped them settle back into their towns too. We also admitted their sons and daughters into Iraqi universities and schools without any documentation. We told them they could wait until security conditions improved, in order to get the required documents.
In Egypt, we distributed cash to 700 Iraqi families. And we also increased grants paid out to internally displaced families wanting to return to their hometowns or cities up to IQD4 million (around US$3,400). This grant was also offered to refugees in Arab Spring countries.
NIQASH: And what about the Iraqis in Syria? There are a large number living there and the situation appears to be deteriorating.
Doski: A committee went to visit the Iraqis in Syria two days ago to check on them. Additionally a delegation from several ministries, including our own and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will visit Damascus again soon. That delegation will meet with embassy staff and discuss the possibility of helping repatriate those Iraqis that wish to return to Iraq.
We’ve coordinated with international organizations and we have prepared border crossings too, in case there is a large influx of Iraqis returning. Those preparations include setting up tents to receive any refugees as well as other measures. There has been an increase in the number of Iraqis returning from Syria but its well within the normal range.
NIQASH: But what if things deteriorate further and a large number of Iraqis want to leave? After all, it’s estimated there are over a million Iraqis living there.
Doski: As I told you, we’re ready and we are coordinating with other ministries should an emergency situation arise. There is a permanent committee set up to handle crisis situations and it’s following up on this matter. But up until now, there has been no crisis situation.
Most of the Iraqis in Syria live in Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south and those two cities are still relatively calm.
When the protests in Syria first started, we formed an emergency committee together with the ministries of transport and foreign affairs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Red Crescent. The committee has already visited border crossings. So yes, we are aware of the grave situation that Iraqis in Syria are in. We’re also in regular contact with the Iraqi embassy in Syria and we’re getting information on Iraqi citizens from them, as well as on developments in Syria in general.
NIQASH: Did you provide Iraqi refugees in Syria with any financial assistance?
Doski: The situation in Syria doesn’t allow us to distribute aid. Any Iraqis returning to Iraq though receive US$400 per family as well as a grant of IQD4 million – this is to help people reintegrate into their societies.
NIQASH: Do you know the number of Iraqi refugees abroad, or at least perhaps, the number in Syria and Jordan, where most Iraqis living outside Iraq are?
Doski: The available statistics indicate that there are some 113,000 refugees registered in Syria. But in fact, the number of Iraqis there is much higher. The Syrian government estimates that the total amount of Iraqis in Syria numbers between 1.2 million and 1.5 million. But most of them are not refugees or displaced persons. Most of the Iraqi diaspora is located in Syria and Jordan and many of them are not really our direct responsibility because they went to those countries of their own free will; they are not displaced nor are they refugees.
Many left Iraq in order to set up their businesses there because of the deterioration of services in Iraq. They have property or businesses in these countries, they don’t live in refugee camps.
In Jordan, there are 32,000 Iraqis registered as refugees. But again, the total number of Iraqis in Jordan is much higher. In Lebanon there are between 6,000 and 9,000 refugees and asylum seekers and in Egypt it’s around the same again. These are numbers provided by the UNHCR.
NIQASH: Let me ask you about the Iraqi asylum seekers in Europe who are forced to leave. What are you doing about them?
Doski: This issue is of great concern to us. Although the number of Iraqis who were forced to leave countries like Sweden and Britain is still small compared to those Iraqis under threat or danger and forced to return.
We’ve met with officials in those countries and we’ve expressed our concern about deportation, given the social and psychological problems associated with such procedures. There have been some cases where Iraqis were treated inhumanely – for example, authorities deport the husband but allow his wife and children to stay.
This kind of thing is of concern to us but on the other hand all of these countries are sovereign states and have their own policies. We can’t force them to accept Iraqi refugees especially as sometimes there is a criminal or legal issue.
NIQASH: So the Iraqi government is just going to stay silent about this? It won’t do anything to help its people in Europe?
Doski: The number of Iraqis in Europe that are under threat of deportation is high. We raised the issue with the cabinet and a committee was formed to look into the matter. We discussed the issue and concluded that what we should do is appeal to the governments of the European countries, asking them not to deport Iraqi citizens until the security situation and the Iraqi economy improves.
We proposed that the Iraqi government impose certain conditions on foreign companies wanting to work in Iraq, to employ a percentage of Iraqis. Then we also asked that the Iraqis under threat of deportation be employed in companies that have invested in Iraq.
If there is no other option than deportation we’ve suggested that European countries establish receiving centres in Baghdad, or in one of the European Union member states, where the deported can be rehabilitated.
NIQASH: But the Iraqi government previously signed a memorandum of understanding with the European Union regarding the return of Iraqi refugees. EU states are using this agreement to justify deporting Iraqis. Will anything be done about this agreement?
Doski: This agreement only authorizes the deportation of Iraqis if there are no other solutions. It details correct procedures and protects the rights of the deportee. Some countries refer to the agreement when deporting Iraqis but it is never the reason for any deportation.
NIQASH: There are also a lot of Iraqi refugees inside Iraq, people that were displaced during years of conflict and repression. What are you doing in terms helping these people get back home?
Doski: Up until today, out of an original total of around 250,000 registered cases of displaced families, there are still 175,000 cases open. Those people have not yet chosen to go back to their hometowns. We will address this file when the security situation and state services improve, and when there is more political stability in the country. Fortunately the number of displaced persons inside Iraq is unlikely to rise because any mass exoduses stopped in January 2008.
NIQASH: So what happens if things don’t improve in Iraq – will this file just remain open forever?
Doski: Of course not. The priority is to return people to their hometowns. We also have plans to integrate those who don’t wish to return into their new communities as well as resettlement plans for those who would prefer to live elsewhere.
We are also partnering with international organizations to provide displaced Iraqis with housing and employment opportunities. Last year we worked with the UNHCR and built 1,500 low cost houses around Baghdad. IN 2012, we have plans to allocate around a third of completed apartments being built by the Ministry of Housing to displaced Iraqis, especially those living in slums.
NIQASH: On the other side of the coin, do you have any plans to try and attract well qualified Iraqis living overseas, back home?
Doski: We were able to encourage 920 qualified Iraqis - holders of Masters degrees or doctorates – to come back to Iraq. We found many of them jobs inside Iraqi institutions. We also held a conference in Stockholm, in Sweden, and invited more than 200 well qualified Iraqis along. This was an attempt to get to know these people, to discuss their needs and work out how to meet those needs.
Other plans involve conducting a survey to identify talented and qualified Iraqis living abroad, as well as their field of specialization, and then to see whether they wish to return to Iraq, either for long or short periods.
NIQASH: Does your Ministry have a big enough budget to cover all of these plans for 2012, as well as deal with any emergencies that might come up due to Arab Spring protests or conflicts?
Doski: In general, the ministry's budget is limited and is not really sufficient for our many aims. Over the past three years our budget was set at around IQD200 billion (around US$170 million) per annum. This has not increased and it’s resulted in a slow down on some of our projects. However in an emergency situation – such as an influx of Iraqis returning from Syria – the cabinet would allocate a special budget.