Surge In Iraqi Asylum Requests (Australia)

Surge in Iraqi asylum requests

Sarah Smiles
The Age (Melbourne)
October 27, 2006

THOUSANDS of Iraqis are seeking asylum in Australia as bloodshed in their country intensifies.

Applications for humanitarian visas have soared since the fighting began in 2003, according to Immigration Department figures obtained by The Age.

A total of 24,000 Iraqis applied for humanitarian visas last year, compared with 3500 in 2001-02. Visas were granted to 2150 of the 24,000, making Iraqis the second largest nationality in last year's humanitarian intake.

While this was an increase on the 1347 visas granted to Iraqis in 2001-02, Australia's Iraqi community wants Immigration to accept more, considering the deteriorating security situation.

Social workers helping Iraqi refugees say the main issue aside from dislocation and war traumas is the pain they suffer leaving family members behind.

Edwina Dinkha, a social worker at the Northern Migrant Resource Centre in Coburg, frequently deals with Iraqi families that have been split up while fleeing the country.

“I had six children arrive without their parents,” she said. “I have also had cases of women arriving with their children and they don't know what happened to their father. They don't know where he ended up.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported an exodus of Iraqis from the country and a surge in asylum applications from Iraqis across the Western world.

It estimates that 1.6 million Iraqis out of the total population of 26 million now live outside Iraq, mainly in Jordan and Syria. More than 1.5 million have been internally displaced as a result of rising sectarian violence.

“Tens of thousand more are moving on to Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf states and Europe,” the commissioner's office reported this month. It said Iraqis had topped asylum applications in Europe in the first half of 2006. Australia has donated $8 million to help Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people since 2003.

The Immigration Department agreed last year to “slightly” shift the focus of its humanitarian program from Africa to the Middle East and Asia, in line with priorities recommended by the commissioner.

Ms Dinkha, who left Iraq in 1990 said the humanitarian situation now was much worse than during the years of UN sanctions from 1991 to 2003.

Working with a large community of Iraqi refugees in Melbourne's northern suburbs, Ms Dinkha said helping refugees fill out forms sponsoring family members or friends took up much of her work. “Every week I'm seeing no fewer than 40 clients.”

But most applications were rejected, she said. “What really upsets those people (is) they really don't know the reason.”

Ms Dinkha said Immigration Department officials said they could only do so much, considering humanitarian visa quota restrictions. Last year 14,144 visas were granted.

While many applications are lodged within Australia, offshore applications are nearly impossible for many Iraqis to lodge.

Australia's embassy in Baghdad does not process visas. This means Iraqis have to reach Australian embassies in Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon. Yet with restrictions placed on Iraqis entering Jordan and Lebanon, most never make it that far.

Meanwhile, the commissioner's Iraq co-ordinator, Andrew Harper, has complained of donors dangerously scaling back their contributions to the Iraq refugee program.