The British government is gearing up to deport failed Kurdish asylum seekers back to Iraq. Dozens of Kurds have been detained over the past three weeks across Britain. Some of them were later released, but others are still being held in special detention centers. A first group of about 40 men is expected to be flown soon to northern Iraq on a Royal Air Force plane, despite protests by humanitarian organizations that their lives may be in danger. The government says they are being sent to an area of Iraq that has been safe for some time now. Kurdish and humanitarian organizations disagree.
London, 31 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There are believed to be some 7,000 Iraqis in Britain whose asylum requests have been denied and who face deportation. The original decision to deport the failed asylum seekers was made by the British
government in early 2004. But the issue became more urgent as the government reexamined its immigration policies following last month's suicide bombings in London.
Kurdish groups in Britain, as well as many humanitarian organizations, are protesting the deportations. They say Iraq
is too dangerous and that the refugees could still face persecution. Soran Hamarash is a spokesman for the Kurdish
Cultural Centre in London.
"As an organization, we always oppose forced return," he said. "We believe that Iraq is still not safe, and many of these asylum seekers and refugees have set up their lives in this country, and it would be unfair for them to be sent back."
Hamarash said a lot of attention has focused recently on the British government's efforts to deport Muslim extremists. At
the same time, he says, innocent, unmarried Kurdish men are being rounded up with little publicity.
He says government representatives made it clear during a meeting with Kurdish groups last week that the deportations
will go ahead, despite the protests: "Through the meeting, we had a discussion, but their instant response was that they will carry on the forced return, but only on those who have a refusal on their application. And they said the number would not be large-scale. It will be gradual."
In a recent statement, the British government stressed that it is important "for the integrity of the asylum system" that "any individual found not to be in a need of international protection should be expected to leave Britain." Supporters of
the government's policy point to a recent flight into the northern Iraqi city of Irbil of 18 voluntary returnees. The
trip was arranged by the International Organization for Migration.
Opponents argue Iraq is simply too unstable to allow for safe returns. The London office of the UN's refugee agency (the
UNHCR) is urging the British government to review its "low recognition rate" of Iraqi asylum seekers.
The Kurds have found support in their opposition to the deportations at the Refugee Council, the largest refugee agency
in the U.K. Tim Finch is its chief spokesman.
"We don't think that it's right that anybody be removed -- even to the so-called safer parts of northern Iraq," Finch said. "And so we've had no problem in allying ourselves with Iraqi refugees to say to the government, 'There is no justification at the time being for sending anybody back to any part of Iraq.'"
Finch believes there are two reasons why the government has decided to go ahead with its plan: "It's to signal to people who may be thinking of coming [to Britain], particularly from those three protectorates in northern Iraq: 'Don't think about it, because you'll get sent back.' There is also obviously an element of [the government] signaling -- I think to British public opinion -- that they are really serious about removals."
Finch said the government is also likely trying to encourage Kurdish refugees to participate in its financially generous
voluntary repatriation scheme. If they don't, Finch noted, they won't be allowed to stay in Britain anyway.
Soran Hamarash of the Kurdish Cultural Center said the government has not released any information as to what grounds
people are being selected for deportation. He believes younger, unmarried men are probably being detained because it is easier to deal with them if no children are involved.
As for the actual number of refugees being held, Hamarash said no one seems to know: "I heard 41. I've heard 38. I have heard different numbers. I know people were detained. They were released without solicitor's interference. So we do not have a clear number."
Finch noted a recent High Court ruling on deportations leaves a lot of room for interpretation, which could help the government do as it pleases.