BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Ahmed is desperate to get out of Baghdad, after Islamists threatened to kill him or his children because he worked for Western media after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Like thousands of others, he hopes to land a U.S. refugee visa to escape bombings, shootings and death threats in his homeland.
“Fundamentalists told me over the phone: if you don’t quit work we will either kill you or one of your children,” said Ahmed, a father of a son and two daughters who said he was afraid to give his full name.
The journalist hopes to join over 4.7 million Iraqis who have left their homes since 2003, in what the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the Middle East since 1948. Some 700,000 people, half the Arab population of Palestine in May 1948, fled or were forced to flee from their homes after Israel was created.
Violence has ebbed in Iraq since the height of sectarian warfare in 2006-07 but bombings and shootings still occur regularly. The number of civilian deaths from violence almost doubled in July compared to June, according to government figures.
Not all Iraqis flee abroad. Half of the 4.7 million displaced persons took refuge in other parts of Iraq, some squatting in public buildings, according to the UNHCR.
Ahmed hoped for better when he returned to Iraq after finishing a year as a visiting teacher in the United States in 2008. His dreams were quickly dashed.
“The security breaches turned from car bombs and roadside bombs into silenced guns, assassinations, zero services, no water, no power,” he said. “I am concerned about my children’s safety when they go to school.”
The United States is a favorite target for Iraqis like Ahmed, but their chances of getting there are slim. Some try instead to go to Europe or neighboring Lebanon, Syria, Turkey or Jordan, for which visas are easier to get.
“We expect about 4,500 Iraqis to travel to the United States under the in-country refugee program this year, so we are going to double the number from last year,” said Mark Storella, the program coordinator at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
While only 66 Iraqis went to the United States in 2004 under the program, the number has steadily gone up.
Some 13,828 Iraqi refugees received visas and traveled to the United States from Iraq and neighboring countries in 2008. The number jumped in 2009 to 18,838.
Iraq and Afghanistan, both hosting tens of thousands of U.S. troops, are priorities for the refugee program. At the top of the list for visas are those whose lives are at risk because they have worked for the U.S. government, military or U.S.-based organizations.
Security clearance to enter the United States takes months. But after all that, some refugees try America and decide to pass up the once-in-a-lifetime chance, opting instead to return to their homeland despite the danger.
“I couldn’t believe that I was going to the States and that my dream was coming true,” said Basheer Rasheed Mahmoud, who works as a cameraman for CNN, the U.S. cable news channel.
“But all these feelings turned around when the plane landed in New York airport. Reality is not like what I see in movies or what I hear from friends. It was a state of alienation. I was astray, feeling choked,” he said.
Mahmoud, 22, had applied for a U.S. visa after getting death threats from al Qaeda. Disappointment set in after two months in Texas.
“The culture, community, life, all is different to my country,” Mahmoud said. “I met some Iraqi friends who tried to lure me to stay but I just couldn’t.
“I knew that such a chance won’t come again but decided to return nonetheless.”
Editing by Ulf Laessing