The European Union decided in November to take in 10,000 of the most vulnerable refugees from war-torn Iraq. Germany is set to receive 2,500. This first group of 400, including Christians and members of other religious minorities, will initially be housed in northern Germany, where they will be issued a three-year, extendable, residency permit.
"The arrival of the first people represents a success on our behalf, but we need to bear in mind that this is only the first phase of a long process," Julia Duchrow, from Amnesty International, told reporters.
Günter Burkhardt from the organisation Pro Asylum said the priority was to enable a "successful integration" of the group, adding that refugees are often forced to live on the periphery of society. The 400 people were selected through criteria drawn up by the German government and the EU.
Successsful asylum applicants had to have a clean criminal record and not have been members of Saddam Hussein's former Baath party, Duchrow said. Single mothers, post-traumatic stress sufferers and those with family ties to Germany also had a greater chance of a successful application, according to the EU criteria. Britain, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden are also involved in the scheme.
Iraq was torn by insurgency and sectarian strife after US-led forces invaded in March 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein. About two million Iraqi refugees currently live in Jordan and Syria.
The number of asylum applicants in Germany has declined over the past two years, meaning that the country "certainly has the capacity" to take in refugees, Duchrow said.
While 1995 saw more than 500,000 people applying for asylum, the number reached just 20,000 in 2008, according to government statistics. The Federal Office for Refugees and Migrants said Iraqis accounted for around one third of asylum applications received since the start of 2009.
Last month, Frank-Walter Steinmeier became the first German foreign minister to visit Iraq since 1987, three years before UN economic sanctions were slapped on Saddam's Iraq over its invasion of Kuwait. During his trip, Steinmeier expressed Berlin's will to help in the reconstruction of the war-battered but oil-rich country after opposing the US-led invasion in 2003.