Iraqis Get A Chilly Welcome As Refugees In Denmark

Iraqis get a chilly welcome as refugees in Denmark

By Ivar Ekman
Published: November 26, 2007

EBELTOFT, Denmark: Despite the bite in the air, the true winter cold has yet to arrive in this serene seaside town on the east coast of Jutland.

But for the 100 Iraqi interpreters and their families who were airlifted to a temporary refugee shelter here by the Danish military in July, the chill is already sharper than expected.

Like many of the thousands of Iraqis who chose to work with U.S. and other coalition troops, they put themselves at risk, often with the explicit goal of helping to build a better Iraq. Their hopes were lost amid the confusing, violent aftermath of the invasion, and they turned out to be nobody's heroes, despite their sacrifices.

Now they find themselves facing a future in a country that is, at best, ambivalent toward their presence.

“I thought I would get good treatment here, that they would pay attention to us,” said Nama, a 27-year-old interpreter who suffered a serious leg wound in May. “But they seem to have forgotten us.”

Nama, who declined to give his full name because his family still lives in Iraq, was riding in an armored personnel carrier with a unit of Danish soldiers on patrol just north of Basra when the vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.

“There was fire everywhere, and the soldiers were crying,” Nama said, slouching in a sofa in one of the makeshift barracks that have been home to the Iraqis since summer. “I thought my leg had been cut off.”

It hadn't, but the calf of his left leg was badly wounded by shrapnel. He was taken to a British military hospital where he underwent surgery and, after three weeks of recuperation, returned to the Danish military base outside Basra.

Since then, he said, he has not received any real rehabilitation – neither in Iraq nor in Denmark – and his leg gives him much pain. “When it is cold, it gets swollen,” he said.

When Denmark decided to withdraw all of its 460 ground troops from Iraq this year, a debate ensued over the government's responsibility to the Iraqis who had been their employees.

At first, their prospects seemed bleak. Denmark has in the past decade become one of the most anti-immigrant countries in Europe, with Muslims the object of great hostility.

It was a Danish newspaper that, in 2005, published the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that flared into an international crisis.

A major factor has been the rise of the openly anti-immigrant Danish People's Party, which is an important source of support for the current conservative government.

For several months, the party and the government resisted calls to give the Iraqis asylum. But when news broke in June that a former interpreter had been killed, most likely because of his ties to the Danes, the pressure on the government increased and it relented.

When news of the decision spread, more than a hundred current and former employees – many of them in hiding because of their ties to the coalition forces – came to the Basra airport, where the Danes had their base.

They were given the choice of resettling within the country with financial help, of being given jobs at Danish missions in the region or of going to Denmark to apply for asylum with their families.

Most of them opted to go to Denmark, and 362 were flown to Copenhagen this summer, according to the Defense Ministry. From there, they were taken to two refugee camps in Jutland, one of which is tucked into the forest here on the outskirts of Ebeltoft.

Part of the deal offered by the government was that the Iraqis would get the same treatment as any refugee in Denmark. But in a country with some of the toughest immigration laws in Europe, this was not exactly a warm embrace.

“They were told they would get no special treatment,” said Gitte Lillelund Bech, chairman of the governing Ventre party's foreign policy committee in Parliament. “And no one forced them to take a job with the Danish troops.”

The Iraqis here are at pains to point out how thankful they are for being saved from, as one of them put it, “certain death.” No statistics on Iraqi coalition employees exist, but anecdotal evidence suggests that hundreds, or even thousands, have been killed.

The Iraqis' asylum applications have been handled with unusual swiftness, and most are now ready to leave the camp, which is expected to close in December.

“The Danes are not angels, but they did not abandon us,” Younis said.

Discussions are continuing in other countries involved in the Iraq war about how to deal with Iraqi employees – the British government has said it would let a restricted number of former employees apply for resettlement in Britain – but so far only Denmark has carried out a big evacuation of this kind.

It is, however, clear that the Iraqis in Ebeltoft have feelings other than unmitigated gratitude.

When the Iraqis leave the camp, they have to subsist on a government stipend as low as 4,800 kronor, or $900, per month. Many also complain that, despite wishing to continue their studies, they have been placed in communities hundreds of kilometers from the nearest university. And, to discourage forced marriages, there are severe restrictions on marrying non-Danes.

“We are not ordinary refugees,” Bani, a 24-year old interpreter said. “We didn't come here because we longed to be in Denmark, or to have fun, or to make money, but because we worked with the Danes.”

Many of them also express a kind of soldiers' pride, which they feel has been hurt. Having experienced the same hardships and risks as the soldiers, they say they wish to be shown some appreciation, the way soldiers are.

“No one has come here from the Ministry of Defense, or the Foreign Office,” said Jassim, a 25-year-old interpreter. “Couldn't they just come, and say thank you?”