By CONSTANT BRAND â€“
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) â€” European Union countries responding to appeals from the United Nations are ready to take up to 10,000 more Iraqi refugees and will send a mission to the Middle East to identify the most vulnerable people, EU ministers said Thursday.
An expert mission will go to Syria and Jordan to assess what the 27-nation EU can do to answer appeals for help from the United Nations and the Iraqi neighbors Syria and Jordan, which are struggling to house and feed the refugees, French Immigration Minister Brice Hortefeux said.
EU governments would decide after that mission how many Iraqis they could take in for resettlement, said Hortefeux, who led immigration ministers’ talks in Brussels.
“Five to ten thousand (refugees), that is a probable number,” the EU will take, Hortefeux told reporters.
Jacques Barrot, the EU’s justice and interior affairs commissioner, said the mission would “identify the most vulnerable groups the return of which to Iraq is out of the question.”
The U.N. refugee agency has asking rich countries, including the EU, to take in some 30,000 displaced Iraqis because of the conflict there in past years.
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaueble said the EU would make a final decision on the numbers EU nations could take in by the end of this year.
“We must not counter the efforts of Iraq to bring refugees home, but a small proportion of refugees for whom returning would be impossible will remain. That’s specifically true for minorities,” Schaueble said.
Germany has been lobbying EU counterparts to accept more Iraqi Christian refugees, arguing they are particularly vulnerable to violence and discrimination in Iraq.
Other EU nations, however, have expressed concern that giving priority to Christians could discriminate against other groups.
Prominent Christians have been the target of numerous attacks in Iraq in past years and tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians are believed to have fled the country.
A record number of Iraqis sought asylum in the EU last year, according to U.N. statistics, despite a sharp reduction in violence in their country.
Asylum requests from Iraqis shot up to 38,286 in 2007, from 19,375 in 2006, making Iraqis the single largest group seeking refuge in the EU.
Almost one in five people applying for asylum in the EU last year came from Iraq, making it the primary source country of asylum seekers in Europe for the second consecutive year, the report said.
The Iraqi refugee crisis remains one of U.N. refugee agency’s biggest challenges worldwide.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said some 2 million have flooded into neighboring countries, mainly Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. An additional 2.5 million remain internally displaced within Iraq itself.