Iraqis Seeking Asylum Face Hard Road

Debate continues from the Middle East to Europe over the fate of tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the violence in their homeland. New figures show that, following a drop after the initial exodus surrounding the 2003 U.S. invasion, the number of Iraqis seeking asylum in industrialized countries has jumped by almost 80 percent over the past year.

Lawmakers across Europe and the Middle East are scrambling to deal with the spike, most likely a result of increased sectarian violence and civil war. Some 22,155 Iraqis sought refuge in the industrialized world in 2006, nearly double the number who did so in 2005, according to a recent report by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The report said about 2 million Iraqis have fled since the 2003 invasion, with the majority ending up in neighboring countries such as Syria and Jordan.

The Syrian Ministry of Interior is said to estimate the total number of Iraqi refugees in Syria to be around 1.5 million. It’s unclear whether the flow of refugees into the country was at all stemmed by the Syrian government’s move in January to begin requiring visas from Iraqis. After initially allowing Iraqis to cross into the country without visas, the new requirement offers visas good for 15 days, according to one report.

UNHCR, meanwhile, reported that in Europe the top destinations for Iraqis are Sweden, The Netherlands, Germany and Greece. While the overall numbers remain well below the peak of 2002, when some 52,331 Iraqis applied to live in industrialized countries, the report put Iraqis as the single largest group of asylum seekers in 2006 — followed by people from China (18,300), Russia (15,700), Serbia and Montenegro (15,700) and Turkey (8,700).

Despite those numbers, the UNHCR report noted that in Europe as a whole, the overall number of asylum seekers (from all countries, not just Iraq) in 2006 was actually the lowest it has been in 20 years. The drop, according to the report, is due to better conditions in home countries as well as more restrictive asylum policies in nations such as Britain, which discourage asylum applications.

One of the more progressive approaches to the Iraqi asylum seekers, meanwhile, appears to be playing out in Denmark, where a leading newspaper’s 2005 cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots across parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds. With a reported 600 Iraqi refugees denied asylum in Denmark, the government early this month put forth a proposal to offer jobs and free education to the asylum seekers on condition they sign agreements that would guarantee they’ll ultimately be sent home.

Billy Briggs is a freelance journalist and occasional World Politics Review contributor based in the United Kingdom.