Originally posted July 2008

Today the gravity of general disorder in Iraq is well known; therefore, explaining the motivations of the enormous number of Iraqis who have fled the country would seem redundant. Not so, however, in the cases of the weakest minorities, such as the Turkmens and the Christians of northern Iraq. Due to the limitations of space, this essay focuses on Iraqi Christians, for whom both the departure and transit stay in neighboring countries are determined by the policy orientations of the related states and migration conditions that tend to reinforce communitarian ties among the migrants.

Obligatory Flight

The increasing Islamization of Iraq has been one of the unintentional consequences of American intervention since the 1991 Gulf War. The Iraqi Christian flight has further increased since 2003. While Kurds and Shi‘ites have been the primary political beneficiaries of the post-Saddam order in Iraq, Christians and Turkmen have become the losers. The sectarian violence and new ethno-religious hierarchies that followed the fall of the Saddam Hussayn regime have obliged the most precariously positioned groups to emigrate, as spelled out by Wassim, a 51-year-old Chaldean man from Mosul: “Many [Christian] people leave Iraq. Our life became tough after the war ... Saddam was good to Christians; when he became weak, we became weak too. When he was collapsed, we were collapsed too.”

The ones who stayed in Iraq are confined in shrinking communities and thus are even more vulnerable. Since 2003, anti-Christian hostility in Iraq has intensified. Stigmatized as “collaborators of occupation forces” Iraqi Christians face ever-increasing verbal and physical violence. Varda, a Chaldean man from Baghdad, left Iraq in a “quest for safety” after the 2003 US intervention. His 10-year-old son, the only Christian student at his school, was accused by his peers of “inviting the Americans into the country.” His taxi was burned out. Finally, as the daily anxiety became unbearable, Varda and his family decided to emigrate. In short, the disappearance of central authority, even if it was highly authoritarian, made the situation “unbearable” for minorities. Accordingly, transit migrants in Turkey complained repeatedly about the authority void in Iraq: “Before there was only one Saddam, but now there are one thousand.”

Obligatory Transit

Turkey is one of the major passageways for Iraqi Christian exiles. Like many other countries located in the periphery of the West, Turkish territory has acquired a new position in the global migration system. There emerged new flows with hundreds of thousands of migrants that target Turkey as a temporary workplace or a transit stop. Iraqis constitute a significant but invisible group among these transit migrants in Turkey. It is difficult to estimate the actual number of Iraqis who crossed into Turkish territory, since most of them lack official papers. Still, the size of this group can be assessed by looking at the number of foreigners who are arrested by Turkish authorities. From 1995 to 2004, some 100,000 irregular Iraqi migrants were apprehended, thus suggesting that Iraqis had become number one among irregular migrant groups in Turkey.

What causes Iraqis to be stuck in a status of “illegality” is related to the changing migratory context in the region. Since the 1990s, Turkey, once an emigration country, has become an important transit country for persons originating from Asia and Africa. The number of these migrants, whose main intention is to reach the West, began to grow because of the concomitant closure of Western territories to newcomers. The strengthening of border controls as well as the hardening of admission regulations compels many to wait for indefinite periods of time in transit countries.

The reaction of Turkish authorities to the growing number of transit migrants has been to ignore, if not to reject, their presence. The Turkish legal framework related to migrants and refugees buttresses this approach. Iraqis, together with other non-European asylum-seekers, do not have the right to settle as refugees in Turkey due to the preservation of geographical limitation on the Geneva Convention. Aware of legal hurdles, most of the Iraqis realize that they have very little, if any, chance to settle permanently in Turkey. So, they consider their stay to be transitory and struggle to reach Western countries as soon as possible.

Despite this aspiration to leave immediately and to resettle in distant territories, Iraqi Christians spend quite long “temporary” periods in Istanbul. Often unable to obtain refugee status, most of them use the family unification programs of Australia and Canada. If they have sufficient economic resources, they opt for irregular methods of entry into Western soil. In the absence of sound refugee protection programs, they are forced to reestablish and rely upon primordial ties, such as familial and religious affiliations, as survival mechanisms.

The story of Jaclyn highlights the importance of these informal networks for survival and the realization of the final migration step. She had come from Mosul in 1999, when she was 32, together with her husband and two young children. In late 2003, she was living alone with her children in a ruined residence owned by the Syriac Church Foundation. Her husband, disappointed and weary of waiting in Istanbul, had left clandestinely for Denmark, where he was eventually regularized and began to work in a local hurch. Jaclyn’s life in Istanbul was not totally isolated, though: she was supported by the Iraqi Christian community, consisting of a few thousand families who similarly considered Turkey a transit stop in their long emigration journey. For Jaclyn, as for many others, the central place of life in Istanbul was the church that provided social space and “a chance to gather freely with other Iraqis.” After spending three years in Istanbul, during which her husband had tried in vain through legal channels to unify the family, Jaclyn and her two children reached Europe after having paid more than $10,000 to smugglers.

The social networks have two consequences for Iraqi Christian transit migrants in Istanbul: they facilitate their survival in the precarious transit period and reinforce communitarian bonds and structures. Far from facilitating the reconstruction of a collective belonging around an overarching Iraqi affiliation, obligatory flight and transit migration have boosted ethno-religious demarcations among Iraqis. In sum, “the peace and democracy project” ends in the re-communitarization of the Iraqis and thus unfastens the national unity that the Western allies aimed to restore.