Yazidi refugees languish in policy spat after IS attacks

AGIOS ATHANASIOS, Greece (AP) " 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 Yazidi " 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 cherry-picking 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 Sijar 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 Sijar 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 Yazidi 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 Yannis 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."

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Online:

U.N. rights panel conclusion on IS group attacks: http://bit.ly/2jfoBCG

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Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed. Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal. Follow Kantouris at http://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris and Hatton at http://twitter.com/hattonlisbon

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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