(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Xenophobia and fear driving foreigners out of Iraq

[Jordan] Life at the Ruwayshid transit camp.
IRIN

Ibrahim, a dental assistant and a Sudanese national, fled from Iraq to Jordan with his wife and five children on the first day of the war in Iraq. "It's not safe at all to stay there," he told IRIN, sitting in a tent in a transit camp in Ruwayshid, a lifeless desert region about 60 km inside the Jordanian border.

So, after 20 years of living and working in the capital, Baghdad, he paid US $1,000 to be transported 600 km to the Jordanian border. "It's a country with no laws, so everybody is working on their own behalf," he said.

Abdi, a Somali student in the University of Baghdad, and an orthodox Sunni Muslim, said he had feared for his life because of his religion.

"I wasn't afraid of the war," he said, "I was afraid that the Shi'ahs [followers of a different Islamic sect forming the majority in Iraq] might kill me." He said he didn't know if the rumours were true, but "when you're not in your own country, you have to believe everything".

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) another Somali who arrived at the border last week said he had been told to leave the country by armed Iraqis, who had threatened him on the grounds that he had come to Iraq during Saddam Husayn's regime and was no longer welcome.

IOM's spokesman in Amman, Chris Lom, said that he did not know whether such threats were widespread.

"There is all sorts of score-settling going on," Lom told IRIN. "In a situation of social breakdown, there is often an economic motivation to get people to leave," he added

Fatuma, a Palestinian woman who left her husband in Baghdad, said most of her family members living in Iraq - including her sister, brother and daughter - had been threatened. "They were told they would be shot if they didn't leave."

A UNHCR spokesman, Peter Kessler, said on Sunday: "People arriving at the border said that in recent days there has been an organised campaign by armed Iraqi groups targeting Palestinians living in Baghdad's Bijii and Balediyat neighbourhoods, as well as the Al Huriyah camp, which reportedly shelters people from various nationalities."

Kessler added that UNHCR was unable to verify such reports, which included allegations that Palestinian families were forced from their homes by the armed Iraqis and told if they refused to leave, the men would be killed and the women raped.

Many of the people in the camp, all of whom had been either migrant workers or students in Iraq, are being transported by IOM to their home countries within about 48 hours of arriving in Ruwayshid.

During the first three days of the war, hundreds of people were transported in buses operated by the IOM from the border with Iraq to the camp in Ruwayshid, but since then the numbers arriving have dwindled. On Thursday about 30 people arrived.

"The people who left Iraq first were those with families," Lom said. "They felt it was too dangerous to stay during the bombing."

There are now about 293 refugees at the camp. Of these, 96 are Somalis, 91 Sudanese, 34 Palestinians, 30 Yemenis, while the rest are Egyptians, Eritreans, Mauritanians and Turks. Surprisingly, less than a handful of Iraqis have arrived; one Iraqi woman, who fled with her Egyptian husband, left the camp on Thursday morning.

Over 800 have already gone "home", many of them after living in Iraq for years and raising families there.

But while the majority have agreed to go, some are refusing to return to the conflict zones they came from. "I don't want to back to Sudan. Everyone is dying there," said Ibrahim.

"There is still civil war in Somalia, the world community has to help us to find a peaceful place to live," Abdi said.

Kessler told IRIN that many people from Sudan and Somalia had in fact opted to return, but "if they have individual claims to asylum, they have a right to have that heard". UNHCR had done some initial screening of the people in Ruwayshid, and would return to the camp to look at the cases individually, he said.

Meanwhile, the camp continues to house, feed and care for both those passing through, and those who say they are waiting for the international community to find them a home.

"We have to be prepared for more people coming," said Ahmad Hadid, a general coordinator with the Jordanian Red Crescent Society, which runs the camp.

Nearby, a second camp, established to house up to 5,000 Iraqi refugees, remains empty. Despite much speculation by aid workers, the reasons for this have remained unclear. Some say Iraqis were afraid they would get caught in crossfire if they moved from their homes; others that the journey to Jordan cost too much; others still that people were too afraid to leave their property and vehicles behind. "It's psychology. If your country is being attacked, you stay there to defend it," said one aid worker. "I would do the same."

Whatever the reasons, both camps in Ruwayshid will remain open, just in case. "If law and order starts to prevail [in Iraq], then people won't come," said Behrouz Ross-Sheriff of Focus Humanitarian Assistance, an NGO working there. "If it doesn't, they might."

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