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Iraq: ICRC activities in behalf of Iranian nationals living in Ashraf

For years the ICRC has been following the situation of the Iranians living in Ashraf, about 80 km north of Baghdad, who are currently under the protection of the US and Iraqi authorities. There has been a lot of discussion about what will happen to these people and which laws govern their situation, and about the ICRC's role. Juan-Pedro Schaerer, the ICRC’s head of delegation in Iraq, explains.
Interview: Juan-Pedro Schaerer, ICRC head of delegation for Iraq
December 03, 2008

What has the ICRC been doing for the Iranians in Ashraf?

With the agreement of all the authorities concerned, the ICRC has helped the Iranians in Ashraf to keep in touch with their relatives through Red Cross messages, and stands ready to continue to do so. Owing to logistical constraints, however, the ICRC has not yet been able to make arrangements for family visits. Nevertheless, over recent years we have arranged, on a purely humanitarian basis, the repatriation of more than 250 people to Iran, most recently in April of this year. It is important to stress that the ICRC did this at the request and with the full consent of the individuals and in coordination with all the authorities concerned.

Between August and October, the improved security situation allowed ICRC delegates to go to Ashraf three times, each time for several days. This helped us to get a first-hand impression of the conditions and to hold private discussions with Iranians living there. Because of security constraints there had been no such visits since July 2003.

What kind of legal protection exists for the people in Ashraf?

The main responsibility to protect civilians lies with the States that have effective control over them – in this case, the governments of the United States and of Iraq have to find a suitable solution in accordance with international law and relevant provisions of national law.

Our main concern is to ensure that the authorities meet these obligations. In particular, they must always protect the lives, the physical and moral integrity and the dignity of those concerned. Moreover, should anyone in Ashraf be suspected or accused of committing criminal offences, judicial guarantees must be respected as provided for in international law.

What has the ICRC done to ensure that the authorities concerned meet their obligations?

The ICRC has been raising the issue with the authorities concerned to make them aware of the situation and of their responsibilities towards the people in Ashraf. While living conditions there are not in general a cause for concern, the ICRC has conveyed to the authorities the worries and fears expressed by residents of Ashraf about their physical integrity in the event that responsibility for their protection and security were transferred from one authority to another.

The US and Iraqi authorities have also been reminded of their obligation to respect the principle of non-refoulement. We have made it clear that the residents of Ashraf must not be deported, expelled or repatriated in violation of this principle.

What is the principle of non-refoulement?

This principle of international law prohibits a State from transferring people to another State or authority if there is a risk that they may be subjected to any kind of ill-treatment, or that they may face persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

What response have you been getting from the authorities concerned?

The ICRC has taken note of assurances given by the US and Iraqi governments that, within the framework of Iraqi national legislation, Ashraf residents will be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and with the principle of non-refoulement in particular.

Moreover, in order to create an environment conducive to sustaining respect for the rights of individuals, the ICRC, for purely humanitarian reasons, has encouraged the US and Iraqi authorities to be clear about their intentions towards the residents of Ashraf.

We will continue to follow the situation closely and stand ready to provide humanitarian services – in particular, to help establish and maintain family links – and legal expertise as long as all concerned agree.

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