Por­tu­gal’s of­fer to take Yazidis re­buffed

Athens rejects pro­posal to re­lo­cate 2,500 refugees be­long­ing to re­li­gious mi­nor­ity over con­cerns of fa­voritism

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY COSTAS KANTOURIS & BARRY HAT­TON

As a mem­ber of a per­se­cuted mi­nor­ity in Iraq, 24-year-old Shaker Mahie has seen his peo­ple mas­sa­cred, raped and scat­tered across a new con­ti­nent. Now, the Yazidis – whose faith is older than Chris­tian­ity – are at the cen­ter of a new Euro­pean dilemma.

Por­tu­gal has of­fered to take in sev­eral hun­dred of the 2,500 Yazidi refugees liv­ing in Greece, ar­gu­ing that their mis­treated com­mu­nity mer­its spe­cial pro­tec­tion. Athens has re­jected the of­fer, wor­ried that other coun­tries might start cher­ryp­ick­ing asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions based on re­li­gion or eth­nic­ity.

Does that make the Yazidis vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion or nondis­crim­i­na­tion? It’s a ques­tion that could be keep­ing some of them in limbo.

Ana Gomes, a Euro­pean Par­lia­ment mem­ber from Por­tu­gal who has been an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate of the re­set­tle­ment pro­posal, says Greek con­cerns are mis­placed. Yazidis, she noted, were tar­geted for slaugh­ter by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants at home and face on­go­ing ha­rass­ment from fel­low Iraqis stranded in mi­grant camps.

“These peo­ple have been vic­tims of neg­a­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion in re­set­tle­ment to other Euro­pean coun­tries when they should be hav­ing pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion in recog­ni­tion of the bar­bar­ity they have suf­fered,” Gomes told The As­so­ci­ated Press after re­turn­ing from a visit to refugee camps in Greece.

The dis­pute comes as the Euro­pean Union wres­tles with how to pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble refugees while mak­ing sure that mem­ber-na­tions are shar­ing the cost of tak­ing in new­com­ers. De­lays and po­lit­i­cal ob­struc­tion have im­peded an emer­gency re­lo­ca­tion pro­gram meant to ease the dis­pro­por­tion­ate load car­ried by Italy and Greece.

Over cen­turies, Yazidis have been the vic­tims of purges by rulers who re­garded their re­li­gious sym­bols and prac­tices as devil wor­ship. Is­lamic State mil­i­tants used the same ex­pla­na­tion when they tar­geted the in­su­lar com­mu­nity for con­ver­sion and elim­i­na­tion.

Iraq’s re­mote Sin­jar re­gion, the Yazidi mi­nor­ity’s heart­land, is where thou­sands of civil­ians were mas­sa­cred and thou­sands more fled in 2014. The United Na­tions has de­scribed the at­tacks as genocide.

In a small ho­tel room near the north­ern Greek city of Thes­sa­loniki, Mahie watches his son and daugh­ter play on the floor with a toy dump truck, and strug­gles to find words to re­count the hor­rors wit­nessed by his young fam­ily. He re­mem­bers IS fight­ers en­ter­ing his vil­lage two years ago.

“They [took] girls and women and killed the men,” he said.

He and his fam­ily fled into the moun­tains of Sin­jar be­fore cross­ing into Turkey and pay­ing smug­glers to get them to Greece.

The Yazidis’ re­cent plight has been high­lighted by the rev­e­la­tions of women be­ing cap­tured by IS fight­ers for sex­ual slav­ery. Two Yazidi women, Na­dia Mu­rad and Lamiya Aji Bashar, re­ceived an an­nual award for hu­man rights last month from the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment.

But old prej­u­dices also have fol­lowed the Yazidis to Europe, where they have re­ported be­ing at­tacked by other refugees at camps and are of­ten housed sep­a­rately.

“We take the is­sue of Yazidis very se­ri­ously be­cause they have suf­fered such vi­o­lence and per­se­cu­tion. We are do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to en­sure their pro­tec­tion,” Greek Mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Yian­nis Mouza­las told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Greece says more than 60,000 refugees and mi­grants who ar­rived there hop­ing to make it fur­ther into Europe are stranded in the coun­try, after EU and Balkan coun­tries closed their bor­ders last year. Athens is strug­gling to shel­ter them over the win­ter and press­ing other Euro­pean Union coun­tries to honor re­lo­ca­tion com­mit­ments.

Por­tu­gal so far has taken in about half of the 1,618 asy­lum-seek­ers it pledged to ac­cept un­der the EU’s em­bat­tled re­lo­ca­tion scheme. Nev­er­the­less, it’s Yazidi-spe­cific in­vi­ta­tion is un­ac­cept­able, Mouza­las said.

“No gov­ern­ment can dis­crim­i­nate on a racial ba­sis,” he said. “And those mak­ing a lot of noise around this is­sue are not help­ing the Yazidis.”

Yazidi refugees them­selves are split on the of­fer from Por­tu­gal. Some worry about fur­ther dis­pers­ing the mem­bers of a mi­nor­ity group thought to num­ber only sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand world­wide.

“I don’t want to go to Por­tu­gal,” Mahie said. “My mother and my brother are in Ger­many and my fa­ther is in Iraq. It’s dif­fi­cult for one fam­ily some­one to [be] in this coun­try and some­one to [be] in an­other coun­try.”

To oth­ers, the idea of a safe haven is ap­peal­ing.

Like Mahie, Riad Salo sought refuge from IS in the moun­tains of Sin­jar; his fa­ther-in-law died there. The younger of Salo’s two daugh­ters, Xzidxan, was born in a tent at a refugee camp near Mount Olym­pus in north­ern Greece.

Salo said he feared con­tin­ued per­se­cu­tion from other Iraqis even if an­other EU coun­try agrees to re­lo­cate his fam­ily.

“I don’t want to go to a coun­try where there are many [other refugees],” he said. “I want to go to Por­tu­gal be­cause it’s very safe.”

(left), 24, holds her baby daugh­ter in­side the room of a ho­tel (right), in the north­ern Greek vil­lage of Aghios Athana­sios, near Thes­sa­loniki.

Hzno Salo

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