In Box

Escape to Europe

Last September, Hayder Hussian, a 24-year-old Baghdad native, trekked 10 days through a land-mined patch of woods along the Turkish-Greek border in a desperate attempt to immigrate to Europe. Ali Majeed, a 28-year-old computer engineer who escaped Iraq after insurgents raided his home and shot him in the stomach, braved the Aegean Sea on a ...

Last September, Hayder Hussian, a 24-year-old Baghdad native, trekked 10 days through a land-mined patch of woods along the Turkish-Greek border in a desperate attempt to immigrate to Europe. Ali Majeed, a 28-year-old computer engineer who escaped Iraq after insurgents raided his home and shot him in the stomach, braved the Aegean Sea on a flimsy rubber raft. They are just two of the nearly 40,000 Iraqis who applied for asylum in the European Union (EU) last year, twice as many as in 2006 and eight times the number received by all other developed countries combined. The influx has made Europe the reluctant new frontier in the Iraqi refugee crisis.

The EU requires asylum seekers to lodge their claims in the first member state they enter, and for most Iraqis, that means Greece — the least welcoming of all EU nations for refugees. Last year, fewer than 1 percent of Iraqis who requested asylum there were approved. As a result, many Iraqis push north and try their luck in other European countries. But once their identity has been registered with Greek authorities, other EU nations refuse to weigh their asylum applications and send them back to Greece. "It’s a cruel game of chance," says Bjarte Vandvik, secretary-general of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles. "The merits of your case matter much less than where you happen to land."

This dilemma has fostered a booming human-smuggling trade, with Iraqis hiring agents to ferry them from the Middle East through Greece to northern Europe — a journey that can be dangerous, grueling, and costly. Salam al-Saadawi, a former translator for the U.S. Army in Baghdad who fled Iraq after receiving death threats, says he hawked his car, his furniture, and his wife’s heirloom jewelry to get $10,000 for transport to Sweden. He ended up being caught in Greece, where he spent three weeks sleeping on the concrete floor of an immigrant detention center with 350 other refugees. After his release, he fled to Sweden, but the Swedish government denied his asylum claim and threatened to return him to Greece. "I said I won’t go back," Saadawi says. "They treated me worse than a criminal." Instead, he returned to Baghdad last year.

There might be a solution in sight. In July, the EU agreed to common rules for handling asylum applications, slated to take effect in 2009. Kris Pollet, of Amnesty International’s EU office, says it’s "a move in the right direction." And that’s all Saadawi and thousands like him are looking for.

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