According to the Government of Iraq, UNHCR and its partners, it is estimated that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.7 million Iraqis are displaced internally and up to 2 million have fled to nearby countries. While many were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and generalised violence. In 2006 alone, UNHCR estimates that nearly 500,000 Iraqis fled to other areas inside the country and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR statistics received from 36 industrialized countries for the first six months of 2006 showed a 50 percent increase in Iraqi asylum claims over the same period a year ago. Of some 40 nationalities seeking asylum in European countries in the first half of 2006, Iraqis ranked first with more than 8,100 applications.
Thirty year old Salam arrived in Cyprus in 2004. From Baghdad to Adana in Turkey, from Turkey to the occupied territories of Cyprus and from there to the free areas where he joined a relative who was residing at the time in Cyprus.
What actually led the young pharmacologist to decide to leave? “When I left the situation in Iraq was not as bad as it is today. I didn’t leave because of the war. It was religious reasons that triggered my decision to leave” he mentions. To explain that parallel to his pharmacological studies at university he began to study in depth about Christianity. Although he was born Muslim he did not feel that this religion appealed to him.
In 2003 he created his own website where he mentioned his thoughts against Islam. Some time later he started receiving e-mails from insurgent religious groups, “You are a shame for the Islam. You must die”
So he left. “After the war the extremist Islamic groups started to gain more power in Iraq. Everybody thought that the situation could be placed under control, but today everybody can witness that it is beyond control”
For Salaam it was not only the fear for his life; it was not only the fact that him being killed, in the same way that many Christians and other minorities in Iraq are being killed everyday, was only a matter of time. The determining factor for Salaam’s decision to leave was that he could not exercise freely the religion of his own choice, the fact that he could not convert, not go to Church and not being able to express his religious ideas without fear. “I just wanted to live in freedom” he concluded.
One relative of Salaam who was living at the time in Cyprus was the way out of the deadlock he was facing.
Upon arriving in Cyprus in October 2004 Salam submitted an asylum application the following month. After going through the personal interview provided by the procedure under the law for the examination of asylum applications, Salam was granted in May 2006 the status of the subsidiary protection. This status is granted to those applicants that do not meet the criteria of the refugee definition. It was not found that Salaam had a personal fear of persecution, but because of the generalized violence that prevails in Iraq, his return to Iraq would have been dangerous for his life, in the same way that it is for every Iraqi. While the Iraqi government is not in a position to control the violence and as such not able to protect its citizens, the Cyprus Government – by responding to a related appeal that UNHCR made to all the States in which Iraqi citizens seek protection- is granting the Subsidiary Protection status to those Iraqis that do not meet the specific criteria of the refugee definition.
During the first year that the Subsidiary Protection status is in force, its holders have the same rights as the asylum seekers. In accordance with the provisions of the Refugee Law, that means the right to reside in the country, the right to work or the right to receive welfare allowance if there is no work, the right to a free medical treatment and access to education. After one year lapses and provided that the reasons that led to the granting of this status continue to exist, then they are entitled to the full rights of the recognized refugees.
Salam is working at 3 jobs in order to be able to survive, which however are completely unrelated to his profession. He is not complaining though. His only problem relates to his work permit. In accordance with the labor policy in force, the asylum seekers (and thus the holders of the SP status for the first year) are entitled to work only in the farming and animal production sectors. One of his employers after failing in his attempt to recruit Salam legally, he told him “I will risk keeping you, because you are a good person”. None of his jobs are in the farming/animal production sector.
I ask him what his plans are for the future. “I’m waiting to see what will happen with my legal status after the completion of the first year, in May 2007, and what my actual rights will be” Practicing pharmacy is not within his immediate plans. To practice his profession in Cyprus he will have to pass the related exams in Greek. Something which he does not have the time to do.
“I feel a gap as I’m not practicing the profession that I used to practice for two years in Iraq. But it’s OK. I’m very good with computers. Maybe I’ll pursue more computer studies” he says.
He considers himself lucky in that the situation is not the same for all the refugees in Cyprus; “I know asylum seekers from Iraq who have been residing for many years in Cyprus and have been legally working mainly in the construction business and because of the shift in the labor policy they are currently jobless. How could these people live and work in a farm when for 5-6 years have been working in the city while their kids have been attending the same school for the same number of years?”
Salaam does not only say that he feels lucky but he also shows it. He seems to enjoy his freedom and the security of his new life, despite the uncertainty entailed in his legal status. He does not refrain from going to the Church on Sundays when he is not working and he pays regular visits to the Father of the Church of his residence area. I ask him if he wants to go back; “”no way” he answers in his little Greek. He does not believe that the situation in Iraq is going to change. We cannot do otherwise but to wish that this will happen.
written in 2006 by UNHCR Representation in Cyprus