The U.N. Refugee agency reported that thousands of Iraqi Christians are fleeing central Iraq and seeking refuge in the northern region of the country.
About 1,000 families have fled Baghdad and Mosul to the Kurdish-controlled region and Ninewa plains in the north, according to The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). An increasing number of Iraqi Christians have also crossed the border to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
The agency expressed dismay that Sweden forcibly repatriated this week a group of 20 Iraqis, including 5 Christians from Baghdad, after their applications for asylum were rejected.
"UNHCR strongly reiterates its call on countries to refrain from deporting Iraqis who originate from the most perilous parts of the country," Melissa Fleming, the agency's chief spokesperson, told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
One Christian man told agency officials that he escaped Iraq in 2007 after receiving a death threat from militiamen. He traveled throughout the Middle East and Europe before finally arriving in Sweden.
The man said he applied for asylum three times in 2008 but all of them were rejected because he was not considered to have been personally targeted.
Some were rejected asylum because of improved security conditions in Iraq.
The "slow but steady exodus" of Christians was sparked by the Oct. 31 deadly attack on a Catholic Church in Iraq's capital and subsequent targeted attacks. At least 58 people, mostly worshippers, died when armed militants, some wearing suicide vests, stormed Our Lady of Salvation Church during Sunday Mass.
"We have heard many accounts of people fleeing their homes after receiving direct threats. Some were able to take only a few belongings with them," Fleming said.
"Our offices have distributed emergency assistance and are in contact with the local authorities to ensure that the recently displaced Christians are supported and assisted."
Many of the Iraqi Christians that recently arrived in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon told UNHCR offices that they left in fear as a result of the violent attack on Oct. 31.
The refugee agency said that churches and non-governmental organizations have warned them to expect more people fleeing in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said in his address before the U.N. Security Council that the frequency of violent attacks has reached its lowest level since the U.S. government entered Iraq in 2003.
But he acknowledged that "attacks by extremists" remain among the challenges faced by security forces in Iraq and expressed particular concern over recent targeted attacks against people of faith, including Christians and Muslims.
The UNHCR said it recognizes the efforts the Iraqi government is making to try to protect all its citizens, including vulnerable minority groups such as the Christians.
"Iraq has reiterated its commitment to increase the protection of places of worship," said Fleming.
While the number of civilian casualties are down from last year, minority groups are increasingly susceptible to threats and attacks, she added.
Fleming reiterated the UNHCR's position that asylum-seekers who come from Iraq's governorates of Baghdad, Diyala, Ninewa and Salah-al-Din, as well as from Kirkuk province, should not be returned and should benefit from international protection.
The spokesperson added that other claims from Iraqi applicants, including those who are of a religious minority, should be "considered carefully" given the "still high level of violence" throughout Iraq.
"UNHCR considers that serious – including indiscriminate – threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from violence or events seriously disturbing public order are valid reasons for international protection," said Fleming.