DELFT, NETHERLANDS // Iraqi refugees braving the cold in Europe this winter now have more to worry about than just the elements. A recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is being interpreted by three governments as a green light to resume forced repatriations to their still very insecure country.
The decision comes amid growing anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe and a fluctuating security situation in Iraq. Refugee organisations fear European governments are taking an increasingly tough line on repatriations in order to discourage more refugees from coming.
On November 24, the court, which offers a last resort to refugees facing expulsion, said that it will review each case it receives on its individual merits. This ended one month of blanket approval for appeals against deportations to Iraq, also called temporary measures, during which the court reviewed the changing situation in Iraq and in other host countries.
The Netherlands, which had effectively been asked along with the UK and Sweden to temporarily freeze deportations, takes the latest decision to mean that repatriations to Iraq can resume.
"The minister has concluded that the situation is back to what it was before the court said that it would automatically grant all requests for temporary measures," a spokesman for Gerd Leers, the government minister for immigration and asylum issues, said Friday.
The Swedish immigration board issued a similar statement while saying that it never completely suspended deportations. The British government too has said that it continued to send back Iraqi refugees who have exhausted their possibilities for appeal, regardless of the court's position.
Refugee organisations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, regard the central Iraqi provinces and the capital, Baghdad, as still too dangerous for involuntary repatriation despite improvements in the security situation over the past couple of years. Many European governments disagree and have started extradition procedures against some of the refugees. The Netherlands, Sweden and the UK each host thousands of Iraqi refugees.
The court's temporary stay of deportations affected the three countries from where it has received most of the refugees' appeals. European legal experts say that deportations also take place from other countries but that lawyers there are just not as aware of the possibility of an appeal to Strasbourg.
EU countries are bound by European directives but repatriation policies differ. The UK, Sweden and the Netherlands are among a small group of countries that have in the past coordinated expulsions, including chartering a plane to return refugees to Baghdad.
Refugee organisations disagree sharply with the three governments' position on the latest decision from Strasbourg and point out that the blanket staying orders that the court issued during the one-month period have not been lifted. Amnesty International in London still regards Iraq as generally unsafe and is scathing about the British government's policy on Iraqi refugees.
"What the Netherlands did was at least to suspend all deportations during that period while the UK continued, hoping that some didn't know they could appeal," said Steve Ballinger, an Amnesty International UK spokesman.
He took the court's recent decision as a positive sign, assuming that it would continue to issue the staying orders but said, "what the court ruling did was safeguard the safety of those in the know".
But even in the Netherlands, where asylum lawyers are generally aware of the possibilities of appeal, confusion reigns.
Farhat Abdullah, a 52-year-old Iraqi refugee who used to own a musical instrument shop in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Al-Hurriya and who now lives in the western Dutch town of Delft, is at a loss.
"My lawyer is appealing against the withdrawal of my refugee status. But he says that I cannot appeal to Strasbourg if I fail here."
Mr Abdullah's case was presented as typical of the plight of possibly thousands of refugees by the Iraakse Platform, an umbrella organisation of Iraqi associations in the Netherlands. He was admitted under a group protection policy for Iraqi refugees that was in force in the Netherlands in 2007 and 2008.
Along with many others, his refugee status came under review abruptly when that policy was changed and the authorities began hearing individual cases.
Mr Abdullah has documents showing that he and his three children were initially issued residence permits as refugees until 2012 and 2013, respectively.
His wife was killed in 2004 in what he says was a rocket attack on his house in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Al-Hurriya after he had refused repeated warnings from "the fundamentalist militants" of the Mahdi Army to close his music shop. The Mahdi Army was the militia that was run by the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
The Netherlands' immigration authority, IND, accepts Mr Abdullah's account but refuses to acknowledge that his life is still in danger. The IND's decision spells out that it regards Mr Abdullah's claim as "a subjective fear". It notes that he spent more than one year in Iraq after the attack, "at an address known to the Mahdi [sic]".
Mr Abdullah countered that during this time he was in hospital and at his mother's house recovering from severe burns to his legs.
The case shows the difficulty individuals now face when claiming refugee status under European asylum laws. Refugee organisations generally accept that asylum is meant only for those who are actually being threatened with violence in their home country, but point out that the situation in Iraq, as in Somalia and Afghanistan, is still overall unsafe.
Amnesty International spokesman Steve Ballinger said that the British government's policy may be meant to deter others from coming. "We are worried that this very tough stance is an attempt to send a strong signal that the UK will take a very tough line on anybody applying for refugee status."
In the Netherlands, the Iraakse Platform, too, detects a chilling climate for refugees. "Dutch society has turned to the right and that has consequences for the lives of immigrants and asylum-seekers," said Araz Abbas, one of the group's activists.
But the government is determined to stick to its policies and it denies excessive toughness. "Refugees remain welcome in the Netherlands but each case will be judged individually," said the minister's spokesman.