LONDON (Reuters) - Failed Iraqi asylum seekers accused the British government of recklessness on Friday for threatening to send them back to their homeland despite its admission that the country is dangerous.
Around 40 Iraqis gathered outside the Home Office in London to protest against the government's decision to toughen its policy on deporting people to Iraq. There have been similar demonstrations in other British cities this week.
Because of the violence in Iraq, the government has allowed Iraqis to stay in Britain even after their asylum applications have failed. It has also given them limited state benefits.
But London now says it is safe for failed Iraqi asylum seekers from the Kurdish-controlled northern part of the country to return, and plans to fly them back soon.
Iraqi refugee support groups say hundreds of Iraqis have been detained in recent weeks for deportation and that the government plans to deport more than 7,000 Iraqis.
A Home Office spokeswoman described those figures as "way out" and said 38 Iraqis had been detained in preparation for removal. She declined to say when they would be sent back.
Iraqis protesting outside the Home Office said they feared persecution if they were sent back to Iraq.
Farhad Salam, a 34-year-old failed asylum seeker from the northeastern city of Sulaimaniya, said he was tortured in an Iraqi jail in 1999 because of his political beliefs and feared the same thing would happen if he were deported.
"I would die a long slow death in Iraq," he told Reuters.
More than 20,000 Iraqis have applied for asylum in Britain during the past three years. The vast majority have had their applications rejected but have been allowed to stay because of the precarious situation in their homeland.
The northern provinces of Iraq are widely perceived to be much safer than Baghdad and central Iraq, where the insurgency against the U.S. occupation is raging.
But the Foreign Office advises against all travel to Baghdad and the surrounding area and "all but essential travel" to the rest of Iraq, including the north.
"The security situation is dangerous," it says.
The United Nations' refugee agency, the office of the UNHCR, says Iraq remains "extremely unstable and dangerous" and adds that "no part of Iraq can be considered safe".
It says it is worried about Britain's change of policy, although it accepts that some Iraqis could be safely sent back to the Kurdish-controlled north if they have "strong community links and some form of support in those areas".
The UNHCR's spokesman in London, Peter Kessler, said the agency was concerned Britain's plan might set a precedent for countries such as Germany and Turkey, with much larger Iraqi populations, to follow suit.
"There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers across the world and we're worried that they too could be forced to return," he said.
Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action, a charity which works with refugees in Britain, slammed the decision.
"Anyone can see that the situation in Iraq is far from safe," he said. "We know from experience that forcing people back before the situation is safe does not work."
Did you find this article insightful?