Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq by British and American forces, Jo Wilding recalls her work there, and describes how now as an immigration barrister she meets the victims of the conflict as clients seeking asylum in the UK.
Ten years ago I was in Iraq as the bombs began falling. I was in Baghdad interviewing casualties and doctors, speaking to eye witnesses and, where possible, visiting sites of bombings to document the effects of the bombing on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
A few months later a group of us set up a small circus working with traumatised children in Iraq. We met an Iraqi theatre group called Happy Family which was doing similar work and we started performing and playing together, sharing our skills.
After my group had left Iraq, they carried on teaching drama to children of all sects and backgrounds and putting on shows for kids. They started receiving death threats but they kept on working. In April 2006 two of the group, plus a friend, were driving the Happy Family van when they were fired on. Our friend Haider was killed instantly. Our friend Fuad was dragged out and beaten to death.
The rest of the group fled to Egypt and Syria where they carried on working with the many Iraqi refugees. More than 80 artists, actors and musicians had been murdered in Iraq by then and many others had fled. Even the florists shops had closed. The war had taken away laughter, colour and light relief.
Now, as a barrister specialising in asylum, I regularly represent Iraqi refugees. As well as the artists, educated women, professionals, journalists, homosexuals, members of various religious minorities have fled the country, including a huge proportion of the country’s Christian population. My old neighbourhood was a mixed one, Sunni, Shia and Christians living side by side, until the church was bombed and the Christians threatened and attacked. Neighbourhoods and cities have become divided along sectarian lines, though many Iraqis believe the conflicts were deliberately engineered by the occupying forces.
The UKBA continues to try to return Iraqi nationals. The Iraqi government voted last year to refuse to accept enforced returns. The Home Secretary has been forced to accept that those with no passport at all – either current or expired – cannot be returned because of the risk of detention and Article 3 mistreatment (torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) at the airport. That is just one of the ironies of Iraq, ten years on from the invasion: that many of those who fled still can’t be returned because of the risk of being tortured before they even get through the airport.
Prison conditions are still poor, with torture endemic, large numbers of people remain displaced and Iraq is among the most corrupt countries in the world. Some things have changed though: arms exports from the UK have resumed and Iraq is now considered a developing market for “defence” equipment.