Thousands of Iraqi refugees in the UK are being left in a legal limbo, as the government plans to begin deportations to Baghdad in the near future. Since 20 March, the day the war on Iraq began, the Home Office has put all 7,000 Iraqi asylum cases on hold.
Beverley Hughes, the immigration minister, told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on 8 May, that preparations were being made for the return of asylum seekers from Britain to Iraq, although no date had yet been set. She also boasted that Britain is ‘the only country at the moment that has succeeded in undertaking enforced removals to Afghanistan’.
An estimated 7,000 cases are awaiting decisions of which 1,600 are appeals. Many solicitors are now refusing to take on applications from Iraqi asylum seekers.
The International Federation of Iraqi Refugees (IFIR), with around 500 members across the UK, has launched a campaign to stop any deportations. The Federation believes that democracy, human rights and security will not emerge in Iraq in the short term and that any claims by the British government that Iraq has been ‘liberated’ need to be questioned. Dashty Jamal, of IFIR, said: ‘Iraqi refugees are anxious about their future and about the prospect of being deported. They have had their benefits stopped and have been evicted from their accommodation as a result of the UK’s anti-refugee policies. And they know that in Iraq there is still hunger, killing and insecurity.’
IFIR points out that the ‘autonomous zone’ in northern Iraq, a Kurdish area created by the Allied Forces after the 1991 Gulf War, has been described by the British government as a ‘secure area’ for 12 years, while Iraqi-Kurdish refugees have long argued that the region is unsafe. Now IFIR fears that the whole of Iraq will witness the same problems experienced there – warlordism, poverty and the absence of basic human rights. Whereas deportations to the autonomous zone were impossible while Saddam Hussein was in power, the British government believes that Iraqi-Kurdish asylum seekers, as well as Iraqis from the rest of the country, could now be sent back via Baghdad airport.
Reports emerged from Iraq this week of escalating violence, continuing problems with water and electricity supplies and the risk of an epidemic of cholera. With many Western journalists having left the country following the US announcement that the war was over, Iraqi refugees believe that the country’s ongoing problems will go unreported in Britain, leading public opinion to support the deportation of asylum seekers in the belief that they can be safely returned. This, they say, is just what happened with Afghanistan.
Last month, for the first time in eight years, Afghan asylum seekers were deported to Kabul. Twenty-one people were deported on one flight. But Mohammad Naveen Asif, president of the Scottish Afghan Society, said: ‘Afghanistan has never been more unstable or dangerous, especially for refugees. After the defeat of the Taliban, Afghans were promised democracy and human rights but all that happened was that the Americans and British repalced one set of warlords with another. Two years on, there is no central regime, no basic constitution and no protection from the brutality of warlords. We urge David Blunkett to put a full stop to the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers.’
Some of those deported last month to Afghanistan allege that they were tied up during the specially chartered flight, which was estimated to have cost £120,000. A ‘voluntary returns’ programme, run by the International Organisation for Migration, was introduced last August, offering up to £2,500 for a family to return to Afghanistan and £600 for a single person. While the government expected up to 1,000 applicants for the scheme, in fact only 39 applied. Last year, about one in three of all new claims for asylum were from either Iraq or Afghanistan.
A demonstration in central London on 11 May, which called for deportations of Afghan asylum seekers to be suspended, attracted 500 people. A parallel campaign in Scotland has won the support of Labour MP Mohammed Sarwar, Scottish National Party MSP Sandra White and Scottish Socialist MSPs Tommy Sheridan and Rosie Kane.