“I can’t go back to Iraq. If I do they will kill me,” Iraqi asylum seeker Fadhel Nama Audah, 50, said. He could not return because his political connections with Saddam Hussein’s regime effectively barred him.
Married with seven children, his eyes welled up with tears as he recalled the overland journey to Pakistan through Iran eight years ago in the hope of finding a better life for his family.
Audah’s case for refugee status was rejected by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in July 1998.
Unemployed, undocumented, unassisted and with no legal right to be in the country, he said he now had to beg outside mosques in Rawalpindi to provide for his family.
“Forget me. I just want a better future for my children,” he said, none of whom went to school.
According to the UNHCR, there are over 150 Iraqi refugees in Pakistan today most of whom arrived after the 1991 Gulf war. Scattered in urban areas throughout Pakistan, their plight is now largely ignored by the world’s media, which understandably focuses more on the over two million Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
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“These people have been forgotten,” Aiman Abdul Majeed, consul of the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said. “They need help.”
UNHCR refugee card
However, assistance for this small group of Iraqis remains limited, and depends to a great extent on their ability to secure a UNHCR refugee card upon arrival.
In Pakistan the UNHCR does not offer blanket assistance to urban refugees, though needy families can apply for a subsistence allowance and medical help, Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokeswoman in the capital, Islamabad, said.
Five years ago most of the over 600 Iraqis then in the country were airlifted home with the help of the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad and the UAE government. Those that remain mostly cite security fears as the primary obstacle to return.
“In this country most Iraqi refugees want third country resettlement,” Majeed told IRIN. “It’s just a waiting game and that’s exactly what they are doing.”
Some have been waiting for as long as 17 years.
“As with recognised refugees everywhere, they face the challenge of integrating into a new society, learning a new language and trying to resume their normal lives as quickly as possible,” Tan said.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|A UNHCR-issued refugee card provides some degree of protection|
But for refugees like Mohammad Fawad Kazim and others, the problems go far deeper.
Unable to legally work and without a family, the 34-year-old from Baghdad admits he has considered suicide more than once - and will do so again if things do not change.
“I can’t live like this,” he said, explaining how unscrupulous policemen often demand bribes from him and threaten him with arrest if he does not pay up.
He was able to secure a UNHCR refugee card, and this meant he could get enough money to pay the rent for his simple one room apartment in Rawalpindi, but he spends most of his time alone with a tiny TV as his sole companion; a broken man with little hope for a better future.
His application for third country resettlement has been rejected five times. Life has lost all meaning for the former hairdresser, and, though he still dreams of joining his family in Canada, he concedes that his options are running out.
Pleas for help
“Please help me. I’m asking for help from anyone,” he said, claiming that the UNHCR had now closed his case.
Asked why he does not simply return to his country, he replied with a hint of desperation: “According to the UN, Iraq is the most dangerous place in the world. Why would I go back?”
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Iraqi refugee Mohammad Shakir Salman, 30, has lived in Pakistan for eight years and dreams of one day joining his family in America|
That is a good question, but one that leaves him and other Iraqi asylum seekers in Pakistan in a quandary. Should they return to an unsafe Iraq or face an uncertain future in Pakistan?
Like Audah, Mohammad Shakir Salman has been in Pakistan for eight years, but appears to have applied for refugee status only on 25 January 2007.
“My family is all in America. Why should I go back [to Iraq]? I have nothing there. And I’m a Sunni living in a Shia neighbourhood,” he said, alluding to the increased sectarian violence that now grips his country.
“Pakistan is like a jail for me,” another despondent Iraqi told IRIN. “Please help us.”