Who wants to return to Iraq?

By / Zvi Bar’el

Tags: Arab world, refugees, Iraq

Immigration from Iraq had a known fee until now. For $10,000, document agents were willing to transfer a potential immigrant’s documents to the absorbing country in Europe, and also to promise that within a short time he could obtain refugee status. Most of these agents’ work involved “creating” documents for the Iraqi refugee proving that his life was at risk, preparing him for questioning by the agencies responsible for granting refugee status, furbishing him with addresses and recommendations for officials in the host country and paving the way through the bureaucracy to obtain residency status and from there, citizenship.

But recently it seems that working with Iraqi refugees has become less worthwhile. According to reports in the Iraqi press, the agents are now asking for only $5,000 or so per case, because it turns out that European countries are fed up with the flow of refugees from Iraq. In Sweden, for example, it was reported that last year some 18,500 requests to immigrate were submitted, compared to 9,000 the previous year. In Germany some 600 to 700 refugees arrive each month, most of them Christians. Belgium and the Netherlands are also actively participating in the absorption of refugees from Iraq.

At the end of July, European countries decided to halt the process of accepting new refugees and to postpone until September discussions about those who submitted their requests for refugee status. The decision does not stem only from concern over the growth in the number of Iraqis in Europe and an increase in the “Muslim element” on the continent, but primarily against the backdrop of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s request to stop absorbing refugees. Al-Maliki explained to European heads of state and interior ministers he met with that the situation in Iraq has improved and Iraq needs its refugees in order to rebuild the state.

Al-Maliki is even planning a government program reminiscent of Operation Magic Carpet (which airlifted the Yemenite Jewish community to Israel in the 1950s) to bring Iraqi refugees in Europe back to their homeland and grant them an initial allowance to live on. At first, there will be weekly flights from Cairo, where some 150,000 refugees live, with each Iraqi government-financed flight capable of bringing some 250 refugees.

Meanwhile, as al-Maliki tries to persuade European countries to return his refugees, Washington announced an opposite plan. According to a bill passed in January and whose practical guidelines were only recently sent to the Iraqis and American officials in Iraq, the U.S. will agree to absorb 5,000 Iraqi refugees and their families for each of the next five years.

These will be special visas issued only to those “who assisted U.S. forces in their activities in Iraq,” as the law stipulates. This refers to Iraqi interpreters, guides and administrative workers who function within the American military network and whose lives are in constant danger. It is estimated that within the framework of the new law, over 30,000 Iraqis could immigrate to the U.S. annually.

Another form of relief provided to potential immigrants by this program is the possibility of submitting their requests in Baghdad, and not having to make the trip to the U.S. embassy in Damascus or Amman. Against this backdrop, incidentally, disagreements arose between Washington and Damascus, which did not allow interrogators from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to question Iraqi visitors on Syrian soil.

As expected, this American plan is already sparking the fear of organizations working on behalf of the refugees in the Middle East, who worry that Washington will not raise the ceiling on permits intended for all Middle East refugees, which amounts to 28,000 people annually, and instead will push aside other refugees seeking to immigrate to the U.S. in favor of the Iraqi refugees.

While the refugee organizations, the Iraqi prime minister and the European Union leadership are submitting papers, requests and proposals, Iraqi refugees themselves are in no hurry to return to the country. In Jordan, there are already close to 700,000 refugees, and in Syria their number is estimated at over 1.5 million.

According to a survey by the UN refugee agency, only four percent of those surveyed said they are interested in returning to Iraq, despite the reports of calm and improvement in the country’s security situation. Many of the refugees feel their lives would be in danger if they returned to the country, and do not rely on the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect them. So despite their shocking living conditions in the neighboring Arab countries – some of them earn less than $ 100 a month – they prefer to wait outside Iraq.

Licensed brothels

The Egyptian director Inas Al-Degheidy is once again stirring things up. Al-Degheidy, who two years ago produced and directed the film “Shall We Dance” which openly portrayed homosexual relations, and before then the important movie “The Freedom Searchers” about three Arab women who leave their husbands and arrive in Paris seeking a new life there, is now suggesting legalizing prostitution as a profession in Egypt and establishing official brothels.

In an interview on the Rotana network, she says that prostitution in Egypt is a known and familiar phenomenon and there is no point in hiding it. Occasionally prostitution takes on a respectable veneer in the form of ‘customary marriages,’ whereby it is permissible to marry a woman for a short period without such a marriage guaranteeing the woman her rights.

The director therefore believes it is preferable to present things as they are, grant prostitutes their rights, enable them to undergo medical examinations and protect them from abuse on the streets, instead of ignoring prostitution and stating that it does not exist.

Al-Degheidy knows her demand is setting her on a collision course with the religious scholars who already rushed to label her “the lesbian director” and thereby explain her demand. But al-Degheidy held her ground. “I am not a lesbian and anyone who is familiar with the story of my great love and the story of my marriage knows this.”

She is not against homosexual relations and proved this in her films and comments, but she is protesting the rejection of her legitimacy through charges of lesbianism. “The problem of the Middle Eastern man is that he is interested only in the area below the belt and does not see the problems of the woman,” she charges.

In the same interview she explained that she does not support the designation of nude beaches in Egypt, “not because it’s immoral, but because in Egypt it’s hard to find people with nice bodies worth being seen nude.” Al-Degheidy’s comments also sparked the fury of Al Azhar’s religious scholars, who accuse her of “intending to turn Arab and Islamic society into a Western one.

It would be best if the director left matters of religion and society to those who understand them. If her way of repairing the society is to lower man’s level to that of an animal that seeks only to satisfy its urges, then she had best refrain from doing so,” said Mohammed Mukhtar al-Mehdi, an important religious scholar of the religious establishment.