Archbishop's Syrian visit highlights plight of Iraqi refugees and UK policy

By staff writers
October 7, 2007

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has described as ‘heartbreaking and harrowing’ a recent meeting in Syria with refugees from Iraq. Over two hundred refugees, mostly members of Christian congregations, met Dr Williams in a Syrian Orthodox monastery at Ma’aret Sednaya, outside the Syrian capital.

Dr Williams heard at first hand the plight of some of the one and a half million refugees who have fled Iraq for Syria since 2003. Many of those present at the meeting had personal stories to tell of immediate family relatives who had been kidnapped, executed or threatened with killing unless they paid ransoms or fled the country. These, they said, were typical experiences.

The refugees spoke of their fear and uncertainty, their maltreatment at the hands of gangs; the breakdown of the communities which had sustained them and the deprivation and suffering they had experienced since leaving Iraq.

While British politicians and the tabloid media often complain about the "burden" of asylum seekers, Syria has had to absorb more than a million Iraqi victims of war and oppression, the Anglican leader learned. Some estimates suggest half a million more, and growing.

Among the relatively small number of Iraqis seeking asylum in the UK, only around one in six is allowed to remain, according to official figures that have triggered an international row over the British government's approach, the Observer newspaper reports today.

The United Nations is becoming increasingly critical of the UK's position on asylum at a time when a growing number of Iraqis are fleeing their country.

After immense pressure, the government is now about to bow on the question of asylum for Iraqi translators and assistants to British military and operatives in Iraq, Ekklesia understands.

Among the group he encountered on his visit to the Middle East, Archbishop Williams met Areej, aged 23, who had fled with her mother and brother after her uncle was killed and their lives threatened and Bashir, a university lecturer who fled after his 19-year-old son was shot and killed. Women in Christian communities in Oraq were regularly forced to wear the hijab and were followed as they went to Church, many stayed away from church for fear of reprisals.

Dr Williams told them that their suffering was indicative of a major problem; that the conflict in Iraq had done far more harm than was being acknowledged:

“The events of the last few years have done terrible damage in the whole of this region and many people, I know, do not see the cost in human terms of the war which was unleashed. So for me to be here is to gain an opportunity when I return to say something about what you have endured. I do so in the hope and in the daily prayer that we may yet find a solution that will be just and good for all of you.”

The refugees told Dr Williams that their circumstances were desperate and unsustainable, with no hope either of a safe return to Iraq or of citizenship in Syria or elsewhere. They were grateful for what Syria had been able to do but their long term prospects remained bleak and there were fears that Syria would soon not be able to accommodate new refugees. Embassies, they reported, were refusing to open their doors to allow them to register as refugees. The Archbishop promised to do what he could to ensure that they were not forgotten and told them his prayers were with them, particularly for their children:

“Every child deserves to grow up in a home that is safe; every child deserves to grow up in a home where there are people around who can be trusted; every child deserves to grow up in a place where they can see a future that is peaceful for them. And whenever I meet people who are refuges from their country, I think of their children. The whole world needs to know what children deserve. And the whole needs to act so that your children and the children of many other refugees may find a safe future.”

Speaking on his return to the UK, Dr Williams said that the situation required urgent attention and effort: “Security that will enable these people to return to Iraq depends on a settlement for the whole of that country guaranteeing the liberty and dignity of every minority.”

In another encounter, the Archbishop met with Palestinian refugees at the Dibayeh camp outside Beirut. Most had lived there, or in other camps, all their adult lives, some since 1948. Others had been born and raised their own children in the camp. Despite the best efforts of some of aid agencies, support for the camps was drying up. The Archbishop will raise the question of better coordination of aid to the camps with aid agencies.

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