By Jim Brunsden
28.11.2008 / 13:14 CET
EU states accept the idea of resettling 10,000 Iraqi refugees, but only Germany publicly commits itself to joining the list of eight current hosts.
Human-rights organisations have welcomed a commitment by EU member states to set up a scheme for the resettlement of Iraqi refugees, even though they have reserved the option not to take part in what could prove to be the assimilation of around 10,000 refugees.
Speaking after the meeting, which was held on 27 November, France's immigration minister, Brice Hortefeux, said that a voluntary scheme was the only possibility because there “would not have been an agreement if it had been based on a constraint” and it remains unclear how many European countries will participate. Hortefeux restricted himself to saying only that “most of the countries round the table were interested and felt concerned”.
The only country without a formal resettlement programme to have made a clear commitment to participate is Germany, which has said that it will take up to 2,500 refugees. The initiative for the voluntary scheme originated with calls from Germany's interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, at a ministerial meeting in April. Schäuble's proposal was focused specifically on Christian refugees. Although, there was no specific reference to Iraq's Christian community in the final scheme, Germany remains committed to it.
Eight EU states have formal resettlement schemes for Iraqi refugees. According to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, 2,354 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the EU since April 2007, when efforts on resettlement got properly underway. Sweden has been by far the most active state in accepting Iraqi refugees in that period, accepting 1,358 refugees. France has been the second most hospitable, taking in 317. The other six EU states with formal programmes are Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal and the UK. Over the same period, the US has accepted 15,995.
The significance of the initiative is substantially lower than the headline figure suggests because, as Hortefeux said, the figure takes account of people who have already been resettled in the Union. The conclusions do not give a timeline for getting to the figure of 10,000.
Hortefeux, who chaired the ministerial meeting, also added that the number was an “approximate” target.
UNHCR, which will help member states administer the scheme, estimates that at present there are over two million Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan. It says that a significant minority are unlikely to be able to return safely to Iraq and should be resettled in other countries.
Though the scheme would resettle a small number of that total and despite its voluntary nature, a number of human-rights organisations, including the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), have responded enthusiastically to the scheme. Annette Bombeke of the ECRE described it is “a great step forward”.
Bombeke raised one specific concern – that it is “not clear” how many Palestinian refugees in Iraq will be included in the 10,000. There are currently around 3,000 Palestinians stranded in refugee camps on the border between Iraq and Syria, because the Syrian authorities have denied them entry.
Both ECRE and Amnesty International have identified the Palestinians as a group facing particularly extreme difficulties, and one with an especially strong case for resettlement. In their agreement ministers acknowledge “the particular situation of the Palestinians” and said that “no solution other than resettlement appears to be feasible”. They do not explain, however, how this will translate into action.
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