A tragic illustration of Western nations’ misplaced priorities in granting asylum. By Slobodan Lekic for the Associated Press:
BRUSSELS, Belgium – Forced from their Baghdad home by sectarian violence, an Iraqi Christian couple in their 70s have spent the past two years bounced between detention centers in Greece and Belgium, terrified of being forced back to Iraq.
Their odyssey underscores the plight of thousands of Iraqi Christians denied refuge in Europe while European Union nations argue over who is responsible to help them.
Many are caught in a legal limbo. With the notable exception of Sweden, Western governments “” wary of letting in a seemingly never-ending stream of refugees from various countries “” are not prepared to accept large numbers of Iraqis. But the Christians say returning to Iraq is tantamount to a death sentence.
The fate of people like the Iraqi couple, given the pseudonyms Abel and Leah by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, is only now beginning to generate concern at the highest levels.
On Saturday, President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI discussed the worsening problems of Iraqi Christians during a meeting at the Vatican. Bush said the pope lamented the community’s fate, saying it seemed the new Iraq “would not tolerate the Christian religion.”
Although relatively few have made it to Europe, the EU is bracing for a bigger influx. Some 40,000 Iraqis are expected in 2007, double that of 2006 “” itself twice the number in 2005. The United States pledged to accept 7,000 Iraqis this year “” up from only 202 in 2006.
UNHCR officials say many Iraqis seeking asylum in Europe are Christians, terrified by attacks like the kidnapping of a priest and the killing of another together with three parishioners this month.
The Iraqi couple’s saga began after gunmen broke into their home in 2004 and threatened to kill them unless they paid $50,000. They fled Baghdad for Greece, hoping to later join their son, who has been recognized as a refugee in Belgium since 1999.
Journalists are not allowed into the Steenokkerzeel Detention Center near Brussels Airport where the couple is being held. Their Belgian attorney, Dirk Vanheule, asked that they not be identified by name because of the fear they could become targets if forced to return to Iraq.
When the couple reached Athens and applied for asylum two years ago, Greek authorities rejected their request and ordered them to leave Greece after a three-month detention.
They went to Brussels, and sought asylum when they arrived. Belgian authorities initially detained them, but then sent them back to Greece, where they were again placed in detention. The Greeks then issued a second expulsion order.
Belgian authorities argued that Greece was responsible for the couple’s asylum claim under the EU’s 2003 Dublin Regulation, which declares that the EU member state where asylum seekers first enter the EU is responsible for processing their claims.
But the regulation also allows that a different member state may take over a case for humanitarian reasons, particularly those based on family considerations.
The Iraqi couple, with no other place to go, returned to Brussels four months ago, and have been held incommunicado at Steenokkerzeel since then. On Thursday, a Belgian judge ordered their release but they were immediately arrested by officers of the Federal Aliens’ Office and returned to detention, pending deportation to Greece.
Vanheule is now preparing an appeal on behalf of the couple to the European Court of Human Rights, stating the government’s actions represent an abuse of human rights
law and the principle of family reunification.
“By using a legal technicality, in practice what the Belgian state is doing is getting around the judicial review process that is guaranteed by law and is guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights,” he said.