Death of Kadhem Abbas highlights the dilemmas of migrant life

New Zealand citizen Kadhem Chilab Abbas paid with his life by answering Iraq’s call to arms against Islamic State. One News

On April 22, Kadhem Chilab Abbas was killed in an Islamic State (IS) rocket attack in Tikrit. Unlike most deaths in the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria, Abbas’ death was newsworthy – as he was a naturalised New Zealand citizen.

According to media reports, Abbas arrived in New Zealand in 2003 as a refugee. While he had lived in New Zealand ever since, he made frequent trips to Iraq to visit some of his natural and adopted children. On his latest trip he answered a call to arms from the Iraqi government to resist Islamic State. He paid with his life.

Following news of Abbas’ death, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters queried the legitimacy of his refugee status:

If refugees have come here to escape a zone of fear, why then would they return to that same zone?

Peters intends to ask questions of Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse about the circumstances of the Abbas family’s arrival in New Zealand.

Abbas’ tragic case raises interesting questions about perception in New Zealand. For example, should he be regarded as a terrorist? He did, after all, travel to Iraq and became a “foreign fighter”.

A terrorist?

New Zealand’s Terrorism Suppression Act defines a “terrorist act” as those that include death or serious injury to one or more persons; a serious risk to the health or safety of a population; and destruction of, or serious damage to, property of great value or importance.

These outcomes must be carried out for specific purposes, including advancing ideological or religious causes, and with the intention to induce terror in a civilian population or to unduly compel or force a government to do or abstain from doing any act.

Abbas took up arms, which could lead to the death or serious injury of one or more people. He did so for ideological or religious reasons. However, because he was fighting for the Iraqi government, it is arguable that his actions should not be interpreted as a terrorist act.

Similarly, if Abbas killed any IS members, his actions would also not be treated as murder – an offence that could have resulted in his criminal prosecution in Iraq or New Zealand. This is because Abbas was part of the Iraqi “civilian army”.

So far, this appears to be the New Zealand government’s interpretation. Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee questioned the notion of people going to fight in Iraq:

It was a little strange that someone who fled war-torn Iraq as a refugee to build a new life in New Zealand would want to go back and fight, but they have that right.

New Zealanders who travel to Iraq and Syria to fight for IS can expect punitive action against them if they return. But it is unclear what, if anything, will happen to people like Abbas who fight against IS and survive to return to New Zealand. There is no indication that the NZ government regards such people as potential murderers.

Or a bogus refugee?

Abbas’s daughter, Hanan, described how he and some of his extended family fled Iraq during the 1992 Gulf War. They sought refuge in Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia before attempting to procure passage to Australia to seek asylum there.

The UN Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted in their home country because of race, religion or political conviction, among other reasons. Once a person is granted refugee status by New Zealand, they enjoy the right to protection, residence and the same path to citizenship by naturalisation as any other immigrant.

As a New Zealand citizen, Abbas had every right to travel to the Middle East as frequently as he wished. Whether such travel was wise is another issue.

Abbas was, by all accounts, a devout family man with children in Iraq. At least one of them was in trouble at the time of his final visit to the country. If faced with similar circumstances, Brownlee and Peters would surely empathise with Abbas’ decision.

There is no such thing as a bogus refugee. Fraudulent claims to refugee status are sometimes made, but New Zealand possesses one of the best refugee status determination processes in the world. If Abbas was granted refugee status in New Zealand, then there is little doubt that he was a genuine refugee. And he died as a New Zealand citizen.

Family loyalties are strong

This raises questions about the motivation of naturalised New Zealand citizens to return to the “countries of their birth”, especially to take up arms. What is the lure, and how can New Zealanders better understand this overriding emotional connection, which goes beyond the construct of Kiwi patriotism? Is it rooted in culture including language, religion and tribe?

Or, in this instance, is it as simple as a paternal bond with one’s children? Should more be done to ensure that people like Abbas are more integrated into New Zealand’s society so that they do not feel compelled to leave its shores to fight in a conflict where casualties mount on a daily basis?

If so, a good starting point would be to look at current immigration policy settings for family reunification.

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