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Iraqis seek a safe home in Switzerland

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The Swiss government has refused to take in official groups of Iraqi refugees but Iraqis are continuing to arrive independently in Switzerland.

This content was published on June 18, 2007 - 11:06

More than 6,000 Iraqis are living in Switzerland. Some 2,500 have been granted refugee status and 2,690 have the provisional right to remain.

A further 1,000 people are still going through the asylum process. They are part of the mass exodus of Iraqis since the war began. An estimated two million people have fled Iraq, mainly to neighbouring countries.

Some exiles, like Jasmin Kannuna, have connections with Switzerland. The 51-year-old mother of three had lived all her life in Baghdad, often enduring difficult times.

She tried to hold out after the 2003 invasion and the insurgency and sectarian violence that followed. She was reluctant to leave everything behind and in particular didn't want her sons to lose their hard-won university places.

But then an American patrol was ambushed outside her house. Kannuna was watching television in the living room.

"It was like a huge blast full of glass jumping on me. All the doors were blown off. I ran upstairs to my daughter and she was frozen in shock, covered in glass".

The 12-year-old was not seriously hurt but the experience was enough to make Kannuna's mind up about leaving Baghdad.

What made Kannuna different was that her mother was Swiss. Thanks to her Swiss passport, she was able to get herself and her children out of Baghdad in 2005 and the family is now living in Geneva.

She watches with horror the ongoing carnage in Iraq. "It was bad before but what is happening now is a disaster. I watch the news, I look online, I cannot let it go."

Because of Kannuna's Swiss nationality, she was helped by the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad and was able to arrange for her children to continue their education in Switzerland.

Risky journey

Things are not as straightforward for the 816 Iraqis who applied for asylum in Switzerland last year. Most of them travelled overland - expensive and potentially dangerous journeys arranged by people-smugglers.

Among them were the Arianis, whose first glimpse of Switzerland was on the side of the road somewhere outside Zurich last December. Mother, father and three small children had spent seven days in a lorry container.

The driver pointed them in the direction of Zurich city and left them there. The couple spent the first night outside while the children slept in phone booths.

They are now living in a home for asylum seekers and going through the interview and assessment process.

Living in fear

Khadir Ariani and his wife are Kurds from northern Iraq. Their reasons for coming make it clear that Iraqi exiles are a complex group. The couple married against the wishes of her parents and have lived in hiding and seclusion ever since, in fear of an "honour" killing.

"When her brothers discovered where we were living we had to leave for good. My father gave us the money to go to Europe," Ariani told swissinfo.

Last month, the Swiss government announced that it would send back Iraqi asylum seekers from three northern provinces, on the grounds that the region was not experiencing general violence.

But Dominique Boillat of the Federal Migration Office told swissinfo the return programmes would not take the form of forced deportations. "We will look at the merits of each case individually," he said.

Iraqi asylum seekers wishing to return home may do so as part of a programme supported by the International Organization for Migration. Some 470 have left Switzerland under this scheme since 2003.

Meanwhile, the Arianis await the outcome of their asylum application.

"We want to live in Switzerland," Ariani said. "There are human rights here and a person can live free."
 

In brief

When asked in April by the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, to receive a contingent of "very vulnerable" Iraqi refugees, the Swiss government declined.

The only Iraqi refugees currently coming to Switzerland are those who make their own way.

Last year Iraqis lodged some 22,000 asylum applications in 38 industrialised countries. Switzerland received 816 of these applications, making it the seventh biggest destination country among this group.

There are an estimated two million displaced Iraqis living outside the country and a further 1.9 million displaced within Iraq's borders (UNHCR estimates).

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Key facts

Numbers of Iraqi asylum applications in Switzerland:

2003: 1,458
2004: 631
2005: 468
2006: 816
2007 (Jan to Apr): 386

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