ICMC Resettlement Deployee
Beyond numbers and quotas: Agony between the lines
ICMC Resettlement Deployee
ICMC deployee, Viveka Bergh, reflects on the stories of so many Iraqi refugees hoping for resettlement, and finds inspiration in seeing the most vulnerable cases find acceptance in countries such as Sweden.
The names that appear in the story below are fictitious names, likewise their story. The story is a compilation of events narrated to me during interviews with Iraqi refugees in Damascus during the spring of 2007. These events have taken place, but in the lives of many different refugees and at different times and places.
I do not know the dynamics of violence, but feel certain what I see in her eyes are traces of it. What I see in his eyes, I do not know how to interpret - silence, fury, broken honour, or pure and simple pain? These are my thoughts as their story evolves.
'Prior to the night when they attacked and entered our house, we had received threats and my wife and children were afraid of leaving the house.' 'Ok, I quickly interrupt, let's focus on the time after the fall of Saddam Hussein and until they broke into your house, I suggest.' As an interviewer, I desperately try to find a structure of the stories I am told, sorting events in a neat and timely manner. I have approximately two hours to take down the composition of the Iraqi family in front of me - usually a time-consuming exercise as Iraqi families often have extensive worldwide networks as a result of decades of flight and diaspora - as well as capture the reasons why they left Iraq or the 'refugee claim', and their current situation in Syria. Another half hour is to be spent on the write-ups. Honestly, I never met the time frame.
'Could you please tell me in a chronological order about those threatening events you mentioned? But before that, were you ever exposed to violence or threats of violence during the regime of Saddam Hussein?' Haidar, the father and husband, looks kindly at me and seems dedicated to assist the time-pressured interviewer in front of him. His elderly parents and their two small children have left the interview room to leave space for Haidar and Renda, his wife, to narrate their story.
During the regime of Saddam Hussein, Haidar's two brothers were arrested and imprisoned. He believes they were targeted due to their perceived affiliation to the communist party. They were arrested in the early 1980s when Haidar was still young. His family was never informed about the location or destiny of the two brothers. Only after the fall of Saddam's regime, Haidar's family found out that the two brothers had been executed.
Also Renda had a family member, her uncle, who was executed by the former regime. Renda was subject to verbal harassment by other students at school due to her minority religion, but it never amounted to violence.
'And after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, what happened to you, what made you leave your country in 2006?' Haidar is the one who initiates the narration, his wife Renda quietly filling in a few memory gaps. My minutes are brief:
In Jan 2005, the PRA (Principle Applicant, which happens to be Haidar in this case) is subject to verbal threats. Armed masked men enter his workshop and threaten to abduct and/or kill one of his family members unless he provides a considerable amount of money.
In Feb 2005, the PRA finds a death threat written on his workshop. The PRA decides to close his workshop thereafter.
The events escalate as their story unfolds. Their three children are pulled out of school due to their fear of sectarian violence in the neighbourhood. They were subject to continuous verbal harassment by other students on the grounds of their religion. One morning, the family found a written death threat at their door. 'Why did we not leave Iraq immediately?', Haidar asks himself out loud. 'We knew we were at risk and were preparing for flight, selling our furniture and completing our applications for travel documents, when it happened.'
Their story comes to a quiet breakdown. Four eyes looking down, sudden tears dropping in her lap, tears on his face. No interviewer's timeframe and daily targets become relevant at this moment. Quiet sobbing, my fingers pulled back from the keyboard. I too look down now, aware of being an outsider threading into the most private corners of refugees' suffering. And the pitiful sole comfort I can provide is some tissue to wipe off tears. 'A glass of water perhaps?' After all, my office is situated in a kitchen which gives easy access to water. UNHCR has remodelled a big apartment into an office, maximising the space for interview rooms - a desperate move to cope with the increasing pressure to meet higher targets and assist more refugees.
A few words from me break the silence, only to tell Haidar and Renda to take their time. 'I am sorry. I have to ask you these difficult questions. There is no need of going into details, which may hurt you more.' Renda looks at me, 'We live with these memories every day, we dream of them, we talk about them within the family. They cannot hurt more than they already have.' And so she starts telling me what happened that night, her husband still looking down and later filling in. I read my notes afterwards:
In mid December 2006, unknown, masked men dressed in black enter the house of the PRA and his family. The family is threatened at gun-point. The PRA, his wife, and 5-year old son are dragged out of the house. They are abducted by militia men for three days. During abduction, the PRA is subject to physical violence in the form of beatings. PRA's wife is subject to physical and sexual violence. She was three months pregnant at the time and subsequently lost her foetus. The PRA and his wife are exposed to forced conversion. Their 5-year old son is forcibly circumcised. The same evening, he dies from haemorrhage and/or infection as a result of the circumcision. The PRA and his wife are released upon the death of their son. They seek treatment at a local hospital but choose to leave the hospital before the treatment is completed in fear of militias.
This dry account of the events tell nothing the eyes of Haidar and Renda in front of me express. My report will eventually reach migration officers of resettlement countries. Will they be able to read the agony between the lines? Will they understand the family's need to find a safe haven outside of Syria; where wounds may have a chance to heal, or at least the impact of passed violence decrease; where immediate survival is not the core issue of each and every day; where psycho-social support is available and childcare accessible?
Little more than two months later, I suddenly spot Haidar's face at the office entrance behind a crowd of other Iraqi refugees waiting for their interviews. I see a vague smile on his face as he waves at me. By that time, almost a hundred interviews down the line, I have forgotten his name but the memory of his face remains vivid and I recall some of our interview. I am in the middle of an interview and smile back at him while doing the Arabic sign for 'wait a little, hold on!', squeezing my right hand's fingers together in the common 'stanna shway'-gesture.
When I have finished my interview, I find Haidar gone. The guards have not seen any man waiting for me. I return to my computer to look for updated information about Haidar and his family. Next to their names I read in bold: 'Accepted by Sweden'. I sit back and smile, thinking to myself: this is the reward for case workers. My next interview is waiting and a nagging backlog of case reports lingers on my mind. The eight-member Iraqi family, each one attempting to give her/his story simultaneously, runs more smoothly than expected. Haidar's waving is my carrot from now on.
Haidar and Renda happen to be of non-Muslim faith. People of all faiths are however targeted by violence in Iraq today. People are also subject to persecution on other grounds than religion and/or ethnicity. Not all refugees carry as painful experiences as Haidar and Renda. Too many do.
International responsibility-sharing and solidarity?
The case of Haidar and Renda was submitted to Sweden as they had close family links there. They belong to the little group of more fortunate Iraqi refugees who have already been accepted by a resettlement country. They have to be patient for another approximately three months, the time it takes for the Iraqi embassy in Damascus to issue the 'G-passports' required to enter European countries. Haidar and Renda were also fortunate to be submitted at an early stage. Sweden's annual quota is small (though not compared to the country's population) and includes approximately 1,900 refugees this year.
We were informed in May 2007 that Sweden's annual quota for dossier submissions had already been exhausted. Dossier selection is often the only way to handle urgent and emergency cases as they do not require the presence of a country delegation on the ground to interview the refugee(s) in question. Thus, they are less time consuming. More than half of the Swedish quota is in the end taken up by dossier cases.
UNHCR's resettlement operation is severely hampered by the Swedish fall-out. It is a continuous struggle to find resettlement places for urgent and emergency cases. Iraqi refugees are primarily referred to the larger resettlement countries, being the US, Canada and Australia, but also to other smaller resettlement countries such as the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands. Most resettlement countries, however, do not accept cases on a dossier basis, or accept a very small number of such cases. To my knowledge, only the Netherlands were able to provide a small but much needed quota for Iraqi refugees with urgent medical needs.
For cases that are not urgent or an emergency, resettlement places are in theory available. UNHCR in Syria worked desperately to fulfil its commitment of submitting 3,000 Iraqi refugees to the US by the end of June this year. However, by the end of my contract in July, the timeframe for the first departures of Iraqi refugees to the US remained (still) unknown. Thorough and time-consuming security controls are expected by the US authorities before any departure.
Despite great efforts, it nonetheless stands clear that UNHCR's currently largest resettlement operation in the world is only catering for a drop in the ocean. No matter how important a drop, it does not include even one percent of the total number of Iraqi refugees in the region. Syria hosts approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. By July 2007, UNHCR had registered around 100,000 of these refugees, out of which almost four thousand persons had been submitted for resettlement consideration.
A vast majority of the Iraqi refugees in Syria are thus destined to face economical hardship and poverty with lack of work permits and increasingly exhausted savings; lack of psycho-social assistance to survivors of violence and torture; and a threat of forced return to Iraq for refugees lacking residence permits in Syria. After all, how much longer will Syria continue accepting so generously Iraqi refugees, as western countries are closing their doors to Iraqi asylum applicants?*
* Syria has in the meantime decided on new measures that only allow visas for Iraqis travelling for business, educational or scientific purposes, closing as such the door for fleeing Iraqi refugees.
Viveka Bergh, Swedish national, has been working as an ICMC deployee for UNHCR in Damascus, Syria, from 20 February to 10 July 2007