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Unhappy in Europe, some Iraqis return home

Faisal Uday Faisal, 25, returned to Baghdad in December 2015 after traveling to Sweden to claim asylum.

Ali Arkady for The Washington Post

By Loveday Morris | The Washington Post | Published: January 1, 2016

BAGHDAD — At 25, Faisal Uday Faisal had high expectations when he packed his bags for Europe in September.

After quitting his job making tea and cleaning for the Ministry of Education in Baghdad, he set off to Turkey to join more than a million refugees and migrants who have made their way to the continent in the past year.

"My dream since I was a child was to go to Europe," he said. "I was imagining a beautiful life, a secure life, with an apartment and a salary."

But despite a grueling month-long journey to Sweden, he came back home – one of a surging number of returnees, Iraqi and international authorities say. The International Organization for Migration says it helped 779 Iraqis come back from Europe voluntarily in November, more than double the previous month, and those figures don't include people such as Faisal, who returned on his own.

Some have chosen to leave because they were confused about the asylum process, disillusioned with the lack of opportunities or homesick, while others were forced to go when their asylum claims were rejected.

"It was a boring life there, their food even a cat wouldn't eat it," Faisal said of his two months in an asylum center near the Swedish city of Malmo. "I went to Europe and discovered Europe is just an idea. Really, it's just like Bab al-Sharji," he said, referring to a Baghdad market neighborhood.

While some who come back of their own volition may not have been fleeing danger in the first place, aid agencies warn that legitimate asylum seekers are also being discouraged as Europe becomes less welcoming to newcomers and tries to tighten its borders. Finland and Belgium are among the countries that have warned arrivals from Baghdad that they won't automatically receive asylum.

Faisal concedes that he left for economic reasons, the kind of asylum applicant European authorities are trying to sift out from those fleeing violence. He said he decided to "arrange a story" about being threatened by Iraqi militias. "If I was in danger, I wouldn't have come back," he said.

Faisal begged his father, who had already spent $8,000 on sending his sons to Europe, to send money so he could come home. "He missed the services here. At home everything is done for him," said Faisal's father, Uday Faisal Mohee.

"The problem is, the words Europe or America has such magic for the young people. This one is still affected even though he knows the reality," he said, pointing to his younger son, who returned to Iraq after being detained in Turkey en route but still wishes to try again.

"There are thousands of Iraqis who have come back, and thousands more that want to," said Sattar Nowruz, a spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement. Iraqi embassies in Europe are scrambling to provide emergency travel documents for those travelling back.

Nowruz said many young Iraqis were encouraged by television broadcasts of hundreds of thousands flocking to Europe this summer. According to the United Nations' humanitarian organization, 8 percent of the nearly 1 million refugees and migrants who have arrived in Europe by sea this year were Iraqi - nearly 80,000 people.

"It has a direct effect on those that genuinely need asylum," Nowruz said. "Certainly there are many that have suffered violence."

Aid agencies say asylum seekers are struggling to have their cases heard.

"Some authorities are encouraging applicants to return," said Shannon Pfohman, head of policy for Caritas Europa, "implying that they won't get asylum, won't get a job and generally painting a bleak picture."

A total of 35,000 refugees and migrants left Europe "voluntarily" from the beginning of the year to November, Pfohman said. "But really much of it is more forced. It's not clear what extent it's voluntary," she said, adding that a further 17,000 were deported.

Those fleeing certain countries are being increasingly lumped together, she said, whereas each claim should be individually assessed. But asylum systems are overwhelmed.

The uncertainty and often chaotic claims process has led even some of those fleeing the worst of the Islamic State's atrocities to give up and return to a life of displacement.

After spending $11,000 traveling to Germany, and four months waiting for his asylum claim to be processed there, Ibrahim Abdullah, a 42-year-old member of the minority Yazidi sect, returned to his camp in northern Iraq in October.

He was displaced in the Islamic State's devastating assault on the northern Yazidi town of Sinjar last year. Hundreds of thousands fled. Yazidi men who were captured were killed and dumped in mass graves, and women were sold as sex slaves.

Kurdish forces recaptured Sinjar last month, but the town has been reduced to rubble by fighting and U.S. airstrikes that backed the counteroffensive there. Abdullah's village on its outskirts is still under the Islamic State's grip.

Despite having little to return to, Abdullah became concerned that he would not be able to bring his 16-year-old son and wife to join him in Germany as he had originally hoped.

"It was a camp there, or a camp here," he said. Returning, he said, was the most difficult decision of his life.

"I've been with my family all my life. I've never been away from them. They were telling me to stay, but I couldn't," he said. "I wanted to take my family to Europe where there's peace and security, where we are treated like humans. Here, as a minority, we don't feel accepted."

Some return to less than they had when they left.

Wissam Razzaq, 34, had lived in a rented house with his wife and four children before he left for Finland in September. He sold his taxi, his source of income, to help pay for the 27-day trip.

His brothers had both died during Iraq's sectarian bloodletting, one in 2006 and another the following year. His neighborhood was regularly hit by car bombs. He felt he had a genuine claim and would be able to bring his family to join him.

But he had just one asylum interview in the 45 days he spent in Finland - during his first week there. He felt unwelcomed as right-wing protests against refugees were held.

"If I found only 20 percent of what I'd imagined, I'd have stayed," he said.

With no source of income, Razzaq and his family have had to move into a room of his parents' house.

"I've come back and I've had to start from the bottom again, from zero," he said. "All my efforts and suffering were for nothing."
 

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