Iraqi refugees in no man's land

SUN JOURNAL

Migrants: People fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime find it harder than they had imagined to reach the promised land of Europe.

January 09, 2002|By Russell Working | Russell Working,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DHEKELIA, Cyprus - Mohammed Ali Ibrahim and his wife, Avin, thought they were heading for Italy when they paid $5,000 to human smugglers and sailed from Lebanon in 1998.

But their leaky 36-foot boat, crammed with 82 passengers, swamped off this eastern Mediterranean island. As the passengers bailed and the boat sank, Ibrahim found himself thinking, "It's better for me to die" than to have remained in Iraq.

The Ibrahims were lucky. They and their fellow passengers were rescued by the British military. These boat people have formed the core of a group of 103 mostly ethnic Kurds from Iraq who have been squatting for up to three years in the no man's land of a United Kingdom base in this former British colony. They are just a small part of a migration that is carrying thousands of Middle Eastern and African illegal aliens to the promised land of Europe every year.

They range from Afghans to Moroccans, and the exact numbers are unknown, says Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. The U.N. recognizes 5.6 million refugees in Europe, but there might be millions more who haven't applied for asylum.

"It's very widespread and increasing, especially for those going to Italy or Greece," Colville says. "Greece and its islands are the nearest point [in the European Union] for people coming through the Eastern Mediterranean."

Americans have long known the difficulty of trying to hold back a tide of impoverished aliens on its southern flank, from Mexico to Haiti. Illegal immigration to Southern Europe has proven equally difficult to stamp out, and it raises similar questions when refugees flee brutal regimes.

In the case of the Dhekelia squatters, most are Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein's brutal crackdown on their ethnic group. Their numbers were boosted by a group of non-Kurdish Iraqis who crossed over from the Turkish-occupied half of Cyprus, apparently believing that sneaking onto a base was a shortcut to British citizenship.

The military thinks otherwise, and the decision about their refugee status is in the hands of the base administration, not the British government. Only 21 have been granted refugee status by the officials, who have ruled that most are economic rather than political immigrants. Yet the base - which has been feeding, housing and providing medical care for its uninvited guests - can't seem to get rid of them, except for a handful of men who have stowed away on Spanish-bound cargo ships in the nearby port of Larnaca.

"If we could deport them, we would," says Rob Need, a spokesman for the base. "The difficulty is, Iraq is effectively a pariah state. There is no mechanism for deporting them to Iraq."

The situation in Dhekelia came to the public eye recently when a handful of Iraqis, in an apparent attempt to improve their immigration prospects, set fire to two buildings and a shed during a protest. The base has launched a criminal investigation and has vowed to prosecute those involved. (In interviews, asylum seekers uniformly denounced the vandals.)

The boat people borrowed and scraped up thousands of dollars to make the journey. Kameron Amin Bango, 29, is a Kurd who was shot and crippled during factional fighting in his hometown of Zakho. (He denies that he was a guerrilla, saying he was injured in a crossfire.) He and his brother fled to Lebanon, where each paid $2,000 for the trip to Italy. Instead they ended up with four others in a three-bedroom house on the base at Dhekelia. Portraits of Kurdish leaders decorate the living room, where Bango sleeps on a mattress on the floor. Fist holes are punched in the wall near the door.

"After we were rescued, we found out we weren't in Italy," he says ruefully. "But [the British] saved us, because the engine of the boat was broken; there was water in the boat."

The Ibrahims also insist they had little choice but to flee Iraq. Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, now 27, was away from home when soldiers burst in and told his parents they intended to draft him into Saddam Hussein's army. When Ibrahim's father said he didn't know where his son was, the soldiers beat him up. So the young laborer and his wife sold their home and fled through Syria to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.

No one had a harder journey than the 23-year-old Avin Ibrahim. Pregnant when she sailed, she went into labor at sea. She lay on deck screaming while the other women held up blankets to offer a little privacy. The men busied themselves bailing the boat. Everyone was afraid that the vessel would sink and all hands would be lost. Instead, Ms. Ibrahim gave birth to a healthy girl, named Leah, and everyone survived.

Now she smiles at the recollection. She and her husband serve sweet boiled coffee to visitors, and a decorated holiday tree stands in the corner. Although Muslims, they bought it after Leah saw it in a store in Larnaca and refused to go home without it. Leah also has a little sister who peeks shyly at visitors, and Avin is pregnant again.

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