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Iraq: Refugee mother left in limbo with children sues US government for denying entry

Lawyers say Iraqi mother facing death threats is being 'unlawfully' prevented from returning to the US
Workers push carts along an alley in the central Sadriyah district of Baghdad on 20 March (AFP/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

A refugee stranded for more than five years in Iraq is suing the American government over its refusal to allow her to return to the US with her children.

The woman, known as Jane Doe to protect her safety, says she faces death threats from the same Shia armed groups who killed her father, a translator for the US Army.

Jane Doe fled to the US in 2016 along with her children, where they all received refugee status. However, the decision for her husband was deferred and eventually denied.

Fearing for his safety - he had recently received a bullet in the mail - Jane Doe returned with her children to Iraq to see him for what she thought might be the last time.

Once in Iraq she applied for travel documents to return to the US - however, after waiting years for a response, the government approved her children’s applications but not hers.

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If her children do not return to the US by May 2024, their documents will expire, leaving Jane Doe with the choice between sending her children to the US alone or them remaining in Iraq with their lives under threat.

"All I want is just to feel safe and have a normal life. Put my kids in school. They haven't been going to school since we returned [to Iraq] and they haven't been going out. Not to have fun, not to have a normal child life," she told Middle East Eye.

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"My kids also blame me all the time for bringing them back to Iraq. They tell me that it is my fault, that they are back and that they are in this situation now."

The stress of her plight left her with a number of physical and health problems, including asthma and depression.

At one point Jane Doe said she was picking up medication at a local pharmacy when three armed men, who she said were members of the Saraya al-Salam militia - an armed group associated with powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - emerged from a truck and assaulted her.

"Since then, I have been just moving around, looking for safety. I have been living in different cities, and now I am in a way 'settled' in Baghdad," she explained.

The lawsuit, filed by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and Holwell Shuster & Goldberg, alleges that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services decision to deny Jane Doe the right to return was "unlawful" and points to statute that exempts refugees from the need for a travel document to enter the US.

'We are asking the Court to hold the United States government to its obligations' 

- Kate Meyer, Attorney at  International Refugee Assistance Project

Kate Meyer, IRAP's litigation staff attorney, told MEE that Jane Doe's case was far from unusual, and that many recent refugees needed to return urgently to the country they fled from for the sake of relatives.

"As part of the United States' commitment to welcoming those fleeing persecution, Congress explicitly made refugees exempt from documentation requirements that apply to other noncitizens seeking admission," she explained.

"We are asking the court to hold the United States government to its obligations to admit refugees like Jane Doe under the terms of the Refugee Act, as Congress intended."

She said the US government was currently "unnecessarily keeping a refugee family in danger".

"Jane Doe retains her refugee status in the United States and should be allowed to return to safety with her children. The court should enjoin this unlawful policy immediately.”

'I don't know what could happen'

Iraq has been wracked by unrest since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, which overthrew longtime ruler Saddam Hussein.

Although the country is now a multi-party democracy, corruption and poverty have led to widespread discontent against the political establishment, which many Iraqis as corrupt and subservient to foreign powers.

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The current government is dominated by political affiliates of Iran-backed armed groups who became powerful following Saddam's overthrow.

Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters, who are less aligned to Iran but have still been accused of numerous extrajudicial killings and rights abuses, were the biggest political faction in parliament before they withdrew in 2022.

When Jane Doe left Iraq in 2016, the country was still at war with the Islamic State group, which controlled swathes of the country and regularly carried out deadly terror attacks on civilians.

Despite this, she says the situation is "so much worse than that time".

"It's worsening with every passing year. Every year we pass, then the situation becomes worse than before," she said.

"I don't know what could happen, but I know those who have been threatening me are already now members of the government - they are members of the Hashd al-Shaabi groups, and they are, in the parliament or they are the government. So anything that they could or want to do, they can do it because they are the government."

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