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UNHCR dismayed at forced repatriation of Iraqis; reports increase in flight of Iraqi Christians

ICC Note:

“UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country.”

12/17/2010 Iraq (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency expressed dismay on Friday at the continued forced repatriation by European countries of Iraqis, including one man who narrowly escaped a deadly attack on a Baghdad church.

“UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country,” added Melissa Fleming, the agency’s chief spokesperson.

In the latest incident, Sweden on Wednesday forcibly returned a group of some 20 Iraqis to Baghdad, including five Christians originally from the Iraqi capital.

Fleming, speaking to journalists in Geneva, said UNHCR staff in Baghdad had since interviewed three of the Christians and three Iraqis Muslims among the group. One of the Christian men said he escaped Iraq in 2007 after militiamen threatened to kill him. He travelled through several countries in the Middle East and Europe before reaching Sweden, where he applied for asylum.

He said his claim was rejected three times in 2008 and that this was because he was not considered to have been personally targeted. The others said their asylum claims were rejected on the basis of improved security conditions in Iraq.

“This forced return comes at a time when our five offices in Iraq are noting a significant increase in Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul to the Kurdistan Regional Government Region and Ninewa plains [in the north],” Fleming said.

She added that the Christian communities in the two cities had started a “slow but steady exodus” since a deadly attack on a Baghdad church on October 31 and subsequent targeted attacks. Sixty-eight people were killed during the storming of Our Lady of Salvation Church during Sunday Mass.

Some 1,000 families have arrived in the Kurdistan region and Ninewa since the beginning of November. “We have heard many accounts of people fleeing their homes after receiving direct threats. Some were able to take only a few belongings with them,” Fleming said. “Our offices have distributed emergency assistance and are in contact with the local authorities to ensure that the recently displaced Christians are supported and assisted.”

In addition, UNHCR offices in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are reporting a growing number of Iraqi Christians arriving and contacting UNHCR for registration and help. Churches and non-governmental organizations are warning the refugee agency to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks.

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