Iraqi expatriates face polling obstacles

Posters in Baghdad calling Iraqis to vote Keystone

Iraqi nationals living in Switzerland have to travel to Germany and France to take part in this month’s planned elections in Iraq.

This content was published on January 15, 2005 - 17:09

But many of them lack the money and the documents necessary for trips to the neighbouring countries.

The Independent Electoral Commissariat for Elections in Iraq (IECI) has chosen 14 countries where an estimated 1.2 million expatriates can cast absentee ballots in the January 30 parliamentary poll.

The ballot will be Iraq’s first free election after the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The decision about which countries would have polling stations was taken in coordination with the governments concerned and is based on the size of the Iraqi expatriate communities there.

“I have spoken to many Iraqis who are willing to take part in the election. They consider it a patriotic duty,” said Abdullah Suker Al-Ghazali, president of the Iraqi society in Switzerland.

“It is an opportunity to show the world that we want a democratic state,” he told swissinfo.

Travel restrictions

There are up to 9,000 Iraqi expatriates living in Switzerland, a third of whom are too young to be eligible to vote.

But potential overseas voters will have to travel to neighbouring France and Germany – Munich and Mannheim are the closest offices - because there will not be any ballot stations in Switzerland.

In fact, it will take two trips to be able to take part in the elections. Absentee voters will have to register between January 17 and 23 before they can hand in their ballot papers over three days before the end of the month.

Many voters, however, say they cannot afford two trips for financial reasons. They are also subject to travel restrictions because of their legal status as refugees and asylum seekers in Switzerland.

“People with pending asylum applications or those who were granted only temporary stays in Switzerland can in principle not leave the country,” said Mario Tuor of the Federal Office for Migration.

Special permits

The authorities have offered assistance and have been providing special permits for about 800 people affected by the travel ban.

However, visa requirements by the French and German governments add to the difficulties.

The German embassy in Switzerland has pledged to speed up the visa procedure for Iraqi voters until January 19.

“Germany wants to support the elections and we are aware that Iraqi expatriates should be able to cast their ballot papers in our country,” embassy spokesman Wolfgang Spliesgart said.

In order to receive a travel visa for Germany people with the necessary permits from the Swiss authorities must be able to prove that they will return to Switzerland, Spliesgart added.

Iraqi expatriates who have full refugee status in Switzerland do not need a visa unless they have used up the allocated number of days.

The regulations are enshrined in international humanitarian law under the 1951 Geneva Conventions.

Too costly

Suker al-Ghazali is one of about 1,600 eligible Iraqis who have a residence permit in Switzerland.

“I will go to Mannheim with my wife and son to vote,” he said.

He is also trying to organise a trip from the Swiss capital, Bern, for his fellow Iraqi expatriates and has asked a travel agency for a deal.

Al-Ghazali is aware that it will cost too much money and energy for many Iraqi expatriates to participate in the elections.

“But if we give in or if the elections are postponed these bandits and fanatics will see this as their victory. The elections are an opportunity for the whole region,” he said.

Tamer Sabâa Al Joumaili, director of the Lausanne-based language and cultural centre, Ishraq, has already received 15 applications for a trip to Munich. But everybody taking part has to pay their own way.

swissinfo

Key facts

Parliamentary elections in Iraq take place between Jan 28-30.
Polling booths for Iraqi expatriates have been set up in 14 countries, including Australia, Britain, the United States, Canada, Germany and France.
There are up to 9,000 Iraqi expatriates in Switzerland, but a third of them are too young to be eligible to take part in elections.

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In brief

Only 1,600 potential Iraqi absentee voters have residency status in Switzerland while another 800 are subject to travel restrictions.

They have to travel to neighbouring Germany or France to register before they can cast their ballot papers.

Many Iraqi expatriates face financial and administrative obstacles.

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