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Western procrastination could put Iraqi Christian lives at risk: comparable with 1939 Jewish refugee refusal

5 February 2015

The U.S. and Canada are willing to accept refugees from Iraq but through an application process that takes years and requires the would-be refugees to make dangerous journeys across the Middle East. Islamic State (IS) militants are set on eliminating a Christian presence in the area of Iraq and Syria which they control. If this area continues to grow as rapidly as it did last year, many Iraqi Christians seeking to emigrate to the safety of North America could have been killed before their applications have been processed. The situation has echoes of the U.S. decision in 1939 to turn away a ship laden with German Jews seeking safety, over a quarter of whom died in the Holocaust after they were forced to return to Europe.

Jewish families board SS St Louis in May 1939
Jewish families board SS St Louis in May 1939

Many tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes in the face of Islamist violence and crossed an internal border within Iraq to live in the autonomous Kurdistan Region. They are now stranded without hope of escape as IS violence continues to escalate. Because they have not crossed an international border, they do not meet the definition of “refugee” under international guidelines. This means that they are not eligible for the resettlement programmes of most countries.

The U.S. State Department recommends that these internally displaced people (IDPs) cross the international border into Turkey, thus making themselves refugees. They can then register as refugees with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which is a necessary first step in the process of getting approval for resettlement in the U.S. But this journey, though short, would take the Christians very close to IS and then requires them to wait for years in the hostile environment of Turkey.

For those who do make it to Turkey, and are granted refugee status by the UNHCR, two more obstacles then have to be overcome. First they have to be referred by the UNHCR for resettlement; however, less than 1% of the registered refugees are ever referred due to the extremely limited number of places available. The few who are referred then have to be approved by the host country. In the case of the U.S., government officials say this can take 18-24 months.

For Iraqis who have close relatives in the U.S. or who worked with the American forces in Iraq, there are alternative ways of emigrating to the U.S. as they can register for resettlement at the American embassy in Baghdad. But to get to Baghdad they would have to travel through IS held territory, which for Christians is virtually a suicide mission. Furthermore there is a five to seven year backlog of over 40,000 visa applications at the embassy.

But for displaced Iraqi Christians, time is something they do not have. As IS militants advance across their country, “cleansing” the region they control of Christians, Iraqi Christians are fleeing for safety wherever they can. At least 160,000, perhaps as many as 200,000 are in Iraqi Kurdistan and others are already in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Not only is it unlikely that they will ever be able to return to their homes, but also many of them now feel unsafe in any part of the Middle East. The long delays in processing their applications to flee to America, one of the receiving countries with the greatest capacity to absorb immigrants, could have disastrous consequences in the unstable and unpredictable environment of the Middle East. Could the U.S. not have compassion on them and speed up its processes?

Canada has agreed to provide visas for 10,000 Syrians and 3,000 Iraqis. As in the case of the U.S., these places are reserved for those who have registered as refugees outside of their own country under the Refugee Convention. Some of these places will be granted to those referred by the UNHCR, but the majority will be kept for private sponsorship through churches and other organisations. These sponsorships are expensive and slow to process, taking up to 24 months in Lebanon and 26 months in Jordan.

As Europe moves more to the right in politics, so governments are increasingly turning their backs on refugees; this is truer in the UK than anywhere else. Britain has exercised a level of callousness in terms of refugees from Syria and Iraq that is unbelievable. Given the historical connection between the UK and northern Iraq, whose Assyrian Christians fought for Britain in two World Wars and in the interim period, and given that the Iraqi Christians have suffered intensely because of Britain’s illegal intervention into Iraq, the British government has shown them scant regard, compassion or mercy.

The present-day situation is starkly reminiscent of U.S. refusal to allow entry to 907 Jewish refugees on board the St. Louis that sailed from Germany on 13 May 1939. Denied permission by the American authorities to dock at Florida, the ship was forced to return to Europe where the passengers were given refuge in the U.K., Belgium, France, and the Netherlands so that they did not have to return to Nazi Germany. Tragically, of the 620 passengers who went to mainland Europe, 532 were trapped there when Germany invaded in 1940. Of these, 254 (all of whom had been admitted to Belgium, France or the Netherlands) died in the Holocaust, that is almost 28% of the ship's passengers.