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'Voluntary' Imprisonment at Camp Liberty?

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Once again the plight of Camp Ashraf attracts international attention. The issue: a statement published by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), headed by Ambassador Martin Kobler, calling on residents to move to Camp Liberty.

According to the statement, Camp Liberty - an abandoned US base near Baghdad airport - is now in compliance with "international humanitarian standards" for housing "5.500 people". Human rights experts however point to serious shortcomings.

Following last year's brutal massacre of dozens of defenceless refugees at Ashraf by the Iraqi army, which brought swift international condemnations, Iraq quickly announced a deadline to shut down Camp Ashraf by 31 December 2011. The residents had no option but to leave the country, Iraq said.

Since last September, UN's refugee body (UNHCR) has been ready to start the Refugee Status Determination process of the over 3000 "asylum-seekers" at Camp Ashraf. The process, however, never started as Iraq barred UNHCR from doing interviews inside or even nearby Ashraf.

It further emerged that Iraq had no intention of speeding up departures from Ashraf to third countries. Instead, it was implementing Tehran's instructions for setting impossible conditions to obtain another excuse to launch attacks on Ashraf when the deadline would expire. Ashraf houses members of the most devoted and long-lasting opposition to the mullahs' rule, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK).

UN Secretary General's Special Representative, Martin Kobler, was tasked to find a "peaceful solution" to the drama. He proposed Camp Liberty as a temporary relocation for Ashraf residents so that the UNHCR would start the interviews. Iraq extended the deadline to April 2012 on condition that people would move to Liberty promptly. A group of 400 residents declared themselves ready to move to Liberty with their movable property to test Iraq's intentions.

But it became increasingly clear that no sincere intention to facilitate the refugee process existed from the Iraqi side. The real plan seems to be initiated from Tehran to create a detention centre to further distress and hopefully breakdown the persistent Iranian dissidents.

In a statement on 25 January, the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe called 'Don't turn Camp Liberty into a prison for Ashraf residents'.

The initial 40 square km area of Camp Liberty had been reduced to only half a square km. The area is being encircled by 3.6 meter high concrete walls. The residents or their legal representation are not allowed to visit the camp in advance.

Furthermore, vehicles or other movable property beyond travel bags are not allowed to be taken in. There's no access to lawyers or medical services. No face-to-face or 24-hour access to UN observers as it had been suggested before. Armed security forces will have permanent presence inside the camp. All entrees and exits are controlled by the army. Freedom of movement is nonexistent.

"Any relocation outside Camp (Ashraf) proceed on a voluntary basis, with freedom of movement the most desirable state at the site of relocation," the UNHCR said in a statement on 1 February highlighting the shortcoming of UNAMI's statement.

"It's not a transit camp; it's not a refugee settlement; it's a detention centre, a prison!" Guy Goodwin-Gill, Professor of International Refugee Law at Oxford University stressed during a conference in Westminster 31 January. "Such conditions are poor, nothing short of inhumane and should not be endorsed by Ambassador Kobler," he declared in a separate statement.

But during a press conference in Brussels on 2 February, Kobler again reiterated his proposal. "It requires a voluntary decision by Camp Ashraf residents to relocate from Camp Ashraf to Liberty."

"There are two options for camp Ashraf residents: To stay in Ashraf...but this is an option which might lead to violence!..Or to use the offer of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to go to Camp Liberty," he concluded.

In other words: Die in Ashraf or move voluntarily to a prison!

"Kobler is acting like a salesman trying to sell an imperfect package with no guarantees," a source close to the negotiations said.

While it is a well-known principle that UN officials do not sit down and discuss the condition of an asylum-seeker with a government that he or she has escaped from, Mr Kobler has made no secret of his good contacts with the Iranian Ambassador over Ashraf.

"I am in close contacts with Iranian authorities," Kobler was quoted by the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine on 4 February. "I am confident that many (residents) will go back to Iran," he claimed.

"Who gave him authority to speak for our loved ones?" Saeed Fathi, exiled-Iranian lawyer who has relatives in Ashraf said. "This is an insult to their dignity!"

Mr Kobler got explicit backing from UN, EU and US to solve the Ashraf crises. His failure to use that power to convince Iraq to uphold basic human rights standards at Camp Liberty is therefore seen as very unfortunate.

"Yet another 'Done Deal' just as he did with the MoU and the UNAMI statement," Fathi deplored. "Issuing press releases decorated with words such as 'humanitarian standards' to cover up the human rights shortcoming is simply immoral."