Iraqis in the Netherlands: to return is to risk your life

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Iraqi refugees in the Netherlands are still trying to make sense of the news they found on their doormat this week. It came in a letter from the Immigration Department, in which Deputy Minister Nebahat Albayrak writes that law and order in Iraq has now improved to such an extent that a considerable number of the 3000 Iraqi refugees in the Netherlands can return to their homeland.

As Zaid Al-Hilli (27) reads the letter aloud, his voice trembles. Since March of this year Zaid has been taking a Dutch course and he is already getting to grips with the language. With support from the UAF Foundation for Refugee Students he is studying at Delft University of Technology. But the letter from the minister has left him barely able to concentrate.

"The letter says it's largely safe in Iraq again. But that is complete nonsense. In Baghdad people are still being killed by car bombs. There is looting. Children are being kidnapped. If I have to go back, I will be killed. I do not understand why the Immigration Department has sent us this letter."

Death threat
Zaid Al-Hilli fled to the Netherlands in 2008. Along with his brother, he used to work in Baghdad as a journalist for the Iraqi Media Network, a state-financed multimedia company. At the end of 2006 they were shot at from a passing car. They escaped unharmed but two days later they received a death threat in the post.

"It said that we had to leave our home as soon as possible or else we would be killed. Leaving my homeland was not easy. We would rather have stayed in Iraq. Together we were taking care of our parents and our grandmother. It was a tough decision but in the end we had no choice."

Letters for everyone
Bashr Al Mulla (38) found no less than four letters from the minister on his doormat this week: one for each member of his family, including his three-year-old daughter and his five-year-old son. Bashr fled Baghdad with his family three years ago.

"One day my home came under fire. I decided to leave the house with my family as quickly as I could. Later, my neighbours advised me not to return. Someone had written on the wall that I was spying for the Americans. We left for the Netherlands and I was given a residence permit here."

The Al Mulla family has now found its way in Dutch society. They get on well with their Dutch neighbours. Bashr Al Mulla helps other refugees to find a home and his son is attending a Dutch school. The letter from the minister comes as a shock.

"Surely they know what is happening, especially in Baghdad? Surely they see the images on the news? Albayrak's letter reminds me of that message on the wall of my home in Baghdad. Having been forced to leave Baghdad, now I may be forced to leave my home in the Netherlands. Here no one has threatened to kill me, but in the end the result will be the same."

Over the next six months, the Immigration Department will review the situation of Bashr Al Mulla, Zaid Al-Hilli and the other Iraqis in the Netherlands. They will then be told whether they can remain in the Netherlands or not.