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Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Refugees Protest Restrictions in Mideast

Associated Press
Dec 4, 3:13 PM EST

Refugees Protest Restrictions in Mideast
Associated Press Writer

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing
the chaos of their homeland only to find themselves unwelcome
guests in other Arab countries, threatening a major new refugee
crisis in the Middle East.

Most have settled in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and governments in
those countries have begun imposing restrictions they say are
needed to prevent the refugees from staying permanently.

Faced with escalating violence, kidnapping threats and sectarian
death-squad killings, Iraqis are leaving at the rate of about
100,000 a month, according to a November report from the United

Experts say that this exodus could create a refugee crisis to
rival that of the Palestinians.

The Palestinians fled wars with Israel in 1948 and 1967, and the
number of refugees registered with the U.N. reached more than 4.3
million in 2005. About one-third live in overcrowded camps.

By contrast, about 1.8 million Iraqis have fled to nearby
countries in the Middle East, most of them since the bloodshed
there began after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Arab governments in the region fear the displaced Iraqis could
overwhelm public services and bring Iraq's sectarian conflicts to
their soil.

Nearly 150,000 of the Iraqi refugees now live in Egypt, an
increase of 50 percent since early October, according to
government statistics. In 2003, there were only 800.

In recent months, the government has been making it more
difficult for them to stay.

After their arrival in Egypt, Iraqis get a one-month tourist visa
and then apply for a three-month, renewable residency permit. But
authorities have begun refusing to grant residency status, or are
turning down those who seek to renew it.

Dozens of angry Iraqis protested on Sunday at the Education
Ministry after schools expelled their children because their
visas were no longer valid, the Al-Gomhoria newspaper reported.
The demonstrators demanded their children be allowed to take
midyear exams this month.

On Monday, another group gathered at the Interior Ministry's
residency department in downtown Cairo to protest "delays and
procrastination" in issuing residency permits.

Many Iraqis say they have to pay bribes to get or renew their

"There is a price for every stamp and every signature you get on
your residency," said one Iraqi, who only agreed to be identified
as Abu Wa'el for fear of reprisal.

Officials said the new restrictions would remain in place,
expressing concerns that extremists might infiltrate Egypt or
that ordinary Iraqis might bring sectarian rivalries with them.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were
not authorized to talk to the press.

The Interior Ministry, which handles visa and residency issues,
and a spokesman at the Foreign Ministry refused to comment.

Concerned that Iraq's Shiite-Sunni split could spread to Egypt,
authorities last week rejected a request by Iraqis to open a
Shiite mosque in Sixth of October City, a Cairo suburb where many
Iraqis live, refugees said. They spoke on condition of anonymity
for fear of retaliation by Egyptian authorities.

Egypt's Muslims - who make up 90 percent of the population of 77
million - are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Last year, Jordan, which is also mainly Sunni, barred Shiite
Iraqis from holding rites at a shrine outside Amman, to protests
from refugees.

Jordan has all but closed the door to Iraqis and has stopped
renewing residency permits for the approximately 500,000 already

The kingdom has also increased immigration enforcement efforts,
imposing heavy fines or even deporting Iraqis caught overstaying
their visas, according to the United Nations.

Syria has not restricted visas, and Iraqis have been flooding
there at a rate of 2,000 a day, the U.N. says. At least 700,000
Iraqis have moved to Syria to escape the fighting, according to
the Syrian government.

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