Iraq: Unlawful Deportations of Syrians

Human Rights

(Beirut) – Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and Erbil have arbitrarily detained and deported Syrians to Damascus and to parts of northeast Syria under the control of Kurdish-led forces, Human Rights Watch said today. Iraqi authorities have deported some Syrians even though they possessed official Iraqi documents, enabling them to stay and work in the country or were registered as asylum seekers with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Iraq hosts approximately 280,000 Syrians, with the vast majority of them in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). While parts of Syria have not had active conflict hostilities since 2018, Syria remains unfit for safe and dignified refugee returns. Deporting asylum seekers breaches Iraq’s obligations as a party to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT) and under the customary international law principle of nonrefoulment, that is, not to forcibly return people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or other persecution. 

“Iraq should immediately end its distressing campaign of arbitrary arrests and deportations of Syrians who have fled to Iraq for safety,” said Sarah Sanbar, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By forcibly returning asylum seekers to Syria, Iraq is knowingly placing them in harm’s way.” 

In August 2023, the Supreme Judicial Council of Iraq banned the deportation of any Syrian refugee from Iraq. Nevertheless, on March 18, 2024, Iraqi authorities launched a campaign targeting foreigners who violate residency rules, resulting in the detention and deportation of many Syrians after raids on their homes and workplaces. And on April 3, 2024, the Kurdistan Regional Government suspended KRI visa issuance for Syrians, reportedly at the request of the federal government in Baghdad amid broader efforts to regulate foreign labor. 

Between April 19 and 26, Human Rights Watch spoke with seven Syrians by phone and in person in Erbil and Baghdad, four of whom were at Erbil International Airport awaiting deportation. Four had valid Iraqi residence permits and three were registered with the UNHCR. Some are not identified by name for their protection.

The Iraqi Ministry of Interior did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s multiple requests for comment.

People interviewed reported being arrested in raids on their workplace or on the streets, and two said they were arrested at residency offices while trying to renew their permits. Authorities reportedly did not consider their asylum seeker status nor provide consistent opportunities to appeal their deportation orders. 

A 43-year-old Syrian man from Aleppo was detained at a checkpoint in Diwaniyah city south of Baghdad. After 12 days in detention, he was brought before a judge and presented his UNHCR asylum seeker certificate to no avail. He received a fine and a deportation order to Syria. Although he has filed an appeal, his lawyer said that his chances of success are slim. 

“My life is in danger in Syria,” the man told Human Rights Watch. “I can’t go back to Aleppo, and I don’t want to go to northeast Syria.” His 16-year-old son has been detained in Karrada, Baghdad, since April 14 for violating residency laws, while his other son has been detained since March 19, also for violating residency laws, without being brought before a judge.

He was the only one interviewed who had been given the opportunity to appeal his deportation order. None of the other Syrians interviewed had appeared before a judge during or after their detention, and all were summarily deported.

The 18-year-old son of Nawal, a Syrian woman in her 40s from Aleppo, was detained by the Asayish, or Kurdish security forces, while selling water near a traffic light in Erbil. When Nawal went to the detention center where he was being held, she too was arrested despite holding a valid residency permit. She said Kurdish authorities told them that they must purchase tickets to Syria and leave Iraq or face continued detention. 

The Asayish escorted Nawal and her son in handcuffs through border control at the Erbil airport, where they spent four days stuck in the departures terminal trying to collect enough money to book a flight to Damascus. “Syria is not safe, but there is nowhere else we can go. No other country will let us in,” Nawal said. Immediately after arriving in Damascus, Nawal and her son paid a smuggler to take them to Lebanon. 

The deportation campaign has left Syrians living in fear. During Ramadan, a 23-year-old man woke up at 5 a.m. as usual and left his house in Baghdad to go to work. “I saw a police car in the street in front of my workplace. I ran home and stayed there for two days because I was so afraid of arrest,” he said. 

He said he worries that having an asylum seeker certificate from UNHCR will not be enough to protect him from being deported back to Daraa in southern Syria. 

“Since the Iraqi government announced the expulsion of all illegal workers, every day, or at least three times a week, the police come to my workplace and search for me,” said a 25-year-old man from Sweida in southern Syria. “The employer and other staff warn me, and I run to hide, while another staff member covers my position. They always ask the employees if there are Syrians working in the place.” 

“The situation is unstable in Sweida,” he said. “There are many different militias. When they know an expatriate has returned to the city, they will kidnap him until he pays ransom.” On May 12, Baladi News reported that the Iraqi government had released 47 detained Syrians from Sweida without deporting them.

In July 2023, the federal government in Baghdad arrested and deported three Syrian Kurds for breaching residency rules. At that time, the New Arab reported that another 30 Syrians were detained in Baghdad for similar residency violations and faced the possibility of being deported.

Syrian refugees in JordanLebanonCyprus, and Turkey have been increasingly facing the threat of summary deportation.

Human Rights Watch has documented numerous instances in which Syrian security agencies have arbitrarily detained, kidnapped, tortured, and killed refugees who returned to Syria between 2017 and 2021. As recently as July 2023, Human Rights Watch found that returnees had been tortured in Syrian military intelligence custody and conscripted to serve in Syria’s military reserve force. Other human rights groups, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria (COI), and the UNHCR also maintain that Syria remains unsafe for returns. In March 2024, the COI said that Syria is experiencing a “new wave of violence” not seen since 2020.

The Iraqi government should immediately halt its campaign of arbitrary arrests, detention, and deportations of Syrian asylum seekers. Iraqi authorities should establish a workable system for determining refugee status in line with international standards. Iraq should also consider implementing procedures to facilitate getting work and residence permits for those with irregular status. This should include maintaining collaboration with the UNHCR to ensure proper protection of refugee rights. 

International donor governments should use their leverage to advocate against summary deportations and forced returns which amount to a breach of nonrefoulement obligations, Human Rights Watch said.

Iraq is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor its supplementary 1967 Protocol. The Political Refugee Law No. 51 of 1971 acknowledges political and “military” refugees, but the government stopped granting refugee status to Syrians who arrived after 2011. UNHCR registers Syrians in federal Iraq and issues them asylum-seeker certificates, which they can use to register with the Permanent Committee for Refugees under the Ministry of Interior, where they are categorized as “displaced from border areas of Syria and received for humanitarian reasons” and issued personal identification cards which exempt them from the Foreign Residency Law. The Kurdistan Regional Government, on the other hand, acknowledges Syrians as asylum seekers, which entitles them to obtain humanitarian residence permits following registration with UNHCR. 

“The Iraqi government is obligated to ensure that Syrian asylum seekers’ rights are protected in accordance with both international refugee law and the ruling of the Supreme Judicial Council,” Sanbar said. “Unfortunately, the Iraqi authorities are doing the opposite by sending Syrian asylum seekers back to precarious conditions in Syria.” 

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