"The impact on Cyprus of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq." by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus

Written in July 20th 2007 by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus

Every day people witness the escalating violence in Iraq on their TV and computer screens.

“Iraqis who are unable to flee the country are now in a queue, waiting their turn to die”. This is how one Iraqi journalist summarizes conditions in Iraq today, where it is estimated that 2 million Iraqis have fled Iraq while 2 more million are displaced internally.

How many Iraqi refugees have actually fled to Cyprus?

From 2006 until July 2007, 225 Iraqis applied for asylum in Cyprus, while the total number of Iraqis waiting for a decision on their claim was approximately 250 in July 2007.

From 2005 until July 2007, 9 Iraqis have been recognized as refugees, while 107 have been granted subsidiary protection status.

Refugee status or subsidiary protection

Halil (*) and his family fled Iraq in order to save their lives. They arrived in Cyprus where they were granted subsidiary protection after they applied for asylum. Halil had been working in Baghdad as a security officer for an international organization and he had been specifically targeted for this. It was not the fact that his life was in danger at every moment, not that his kids were almost everyday witnessing bomb explosions, not even when his uncle was murdered in front of his eyes that he realized that he had no other option than to flee. When his son was attacked by insurgents, the decision was taken: “I knew , I had to get my self out of Iraq; it was my duty to save my family".

Similarly, Hymoud(*) left Iraq because he had a threatening letter from the militants to leave the country as soon as possible as he was a soldier at US- coalition army in Baghdad.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Cyprus Refugee Law, refugee status is granted to people who face individual fear of persecution because of who they are or what they believe (i.e. because of well founded fear due to reasons of race, or nationality, or religion, or political opinion, or membership in a particular social group) , whereas subsidiary protection is afforded usually to persons who flee generalized violence or war conditions which could affect anyone indiscriminately in any particular country torn by war or violence.

Do Iraqis in Cyprus enjoy the right to a dignified life?

Whether refugee status or subsidiary protection** what really matters for Iraqis is that they are able to rebuild their lives, given the deteriorating situation back in their homeland and the uncertainty as to when it will be safe for them to return.
Halil and his family have been living in Cyprus under destitute conditions as until now their right to work was severely restricted.

“If I’m not allowed to work, what do I do 24 hours a day? I am used to work all my life. Without a job I am only getting crazy. I am only wondering if I have done something very wrong in my life to deserve that both in Iraq and here my life is like hell. I don’t understand which my big sin is… My father covered my needs as a child and I am to provide for the needs of my children… How will I be able to provide a better future for my family?” Halil wonders, only to conclude that if current situation continues “I don’t have any other option than going back to Iraq, even if that will mean death…May God have mercy on me and my family”
Hymoud has not been living under better conditions either. “I gave most of my savings (3000 USD) to a smuggler to take me to the E.U. to get peace of mind…” Hymoud said who reached eventually Cyprus but not the desired peace of mind.

Not allowed to work and unable to go into another country, Hymoud is struggling to cope with the anxiety and uncertainty that his future holds.

New law – new hope?

Before the recent amendment (July 2007) of the refugee law, the right to work of subsidiary protection holders was restricted in the sectors of agriculture and animal production for the first year of their stay.

“After so much we have endured back in our country, why should we be restricted to work in sectors that we have never worked before? Some of us had been university assistants, military officers, artists, teachers… We did not come here by choice; we only wanted to save our lives and this is the protection we get?” he says and adds “In Iraq we believe very much in education. If we are to be sent in rural areas to work, how will our kids receive education?” Halil says

The new law that was published in the Official Gazette of the Republic in July 2007 aiming at transposing, among others, the EU Qualification Directive of 2004, provides that persons granted subsidiary protection will have the right to work subject to the prevailing needs and priorities of the labour market, which will be decided by the Minister of Interior together with the Minister of Labour and social partners and published in the official Gazette of the Republic.

In August 13, a decree was published stating that during the first year from the granting of the subsidiary protection status, its holders will be entitled to work in many more sectors in addition to agriculture and animal husbandry. The sectors include, manufacture, fabrication, trade repairs, construction as well as other activities.

After the 12 month period subsidiary protection holders get the same rights as refugees as regards the right to work, i.e. in any wage earning activity or liberal profession subject to the rules in force as concerns public service, the profession and recognition of diplomas.

Although the new law substantially enhances the working rights of subsidiary protection holders for the first year, in UNHCR’s view there is no valid reason to treat beneficiaries of subsidiary protection differently from Convention refugees as regards access to employment.

Situation in other EU countries

Despite a commitment to an EU-wide common asylum system, countries in Europe apply very different standards of treatment to asylum seekers.

Although most industrialized countries have so far refrained from returning those Iraqis to whom they deny any positive status, the result is a large number of people living in a legal limbo. In certain countries rejected asylum seekers from Iraq are allowed to stay for the time being as “tolerated persons”, without having access to any social rights, while in other countries they live from hand to mouth from one day to the next, as no decision on Iraqi cases have been reached for many years.

Other countries however accord refugee status*** to the majority of Iraqis who have sought protection in their countries. In Hungary, for example, in 2007 Iraqis were mainly recognized as refugees, while in 2006 they were granted either subsidiary protection or refugee status. As regards the right to work of the holders of subsidiary protection, they enjoy a preferential treatment compared to other third country nationals.

Similarly, in the Czech Republic the majority of the Iraqis in 2007 were recognized as refugees and as regards the right to work of subsidiary protection holders, they are granted work permits regardless of the situation of the labour market.
France allows subsidiary protection holders to work almost in all sectors while Romania grants them equal working rights as citizens.

Iraqis need our unequivocal protection

Increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and generalised violence that claims an average of 100 lives a day. Today Iraqis are abandoning their homes in Iraq at a rate estimated at 60,000 a month.
Approximately two million Iraqis have fled to Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern countries. Only 22,000 Iraqis lodged asylum applications in industrialized countries in 2006**** a number that represents less than half of the 52,000 asylum requests made by Iraqis in 2002 – before the war and subsequent collapse of the security situation in Iraq.

Objectively speaking this is not because the situation inside is Iraq is better now than it was in 2002, but according to most refugee advocates the main reason is that restrictive policies in many industrialized countries are either making it very difficult for potential refugees to get there, or – when they do – deterring them from applying for asylum.

The reality is that the numbers of Iraqi people who finally manage to escape are evidently small compared to the scale of the humanitarian crisis taking place in Iraq. Governments of industrialized countries (including Cyprus) are therefore encouraged to provide effective protection to these people.

UNHCR’s Europe Director Pirkko Kourula underlined the fundamental principles: “The legal and moral obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers still exist,” she said, “and many Iraqis are right now in dire need of that protection. Most of them will never set eyes on Europe, or any of the other industrialized countries, but those who do deserve our respect. More than that, they need our clear, unequivocal protection."


* All names have changed
** Recognised refugees under the Cyprus law enjoy a wider set of rights than persons granted subsidiary protection. In particular, recognised refugees have the same rights as Cypriots as regards for example the right to work.
*** In its latest advisory on Iraq (December 2006) UNHCR, in view of the “generalized violence” in which “massive targeted violations of human rights are prevalent”, recommended that asylum seekers from Iraq should be favorably considered as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention or, failing that, be granted a complementary (or subsidiary) form of protection (unless, of course, the person in question is ‘excludable’ because of their past involvement in war crimes, crimes against humanity or other similarly serious crimes).
**** Some 9,000 applications or almost half of the 22,200 Iraqi applications (47%) were submitted in Sweden. The Netherlands received 2,800 claims, while Germany and Greece recorded 2,100 and 1,400 applications respectively.

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