Special charter flights to take failed asylum-seekers home have increased in frequency, and Iraqis are being returned to parts of the country which are still unsafe, in contravention of UNHCR guidelines for the handling of Iraqi asylum applications, it says.
The deportations are handled by Frontex, a Warsaw-based agency set up to coordinate operations between European Union (EU) member states in the field of border security, and their planes can carry returnees from several different countries. The most recent (on 22 September) had failed asylum applicants from Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and the UK.
One of the UNHCR’s complaints is that the information provided by those countries is usually sketchy, varies from country to country and is given only very late in the process. In the case of last week’s flight, Sweden told the UNHCR the names and dates of birth of those being sent home, but not their destinations. The UK provided details of where its rejected claimants were going but not their identities.
No country told the UNHCR how many of the passengers being put on board the plane were going home voluntarily, and how many were being deported against their will, but reports from Baghdad say police had to be called to escort some of them off the plane.
A spokesperson for the UNHCR, Sybella Wilkes, called for states sending home asylum-seekers to be more transparent. “We are aware when a flight is leaving,” she told IRIN, “but we don’t know until the last minute who is on board or which countries they are coming from.”
The organization does not oppose people being sent back to Iraq in every case. “It’s possible that some people on the plane were going back voluntarily,” Wilkes said. “It’s possible that some were going to areas where we don’t have issues about security. But we don’t know. Having full information would be in everybody’s best interests.”
What they do know is that among the passengers leaving Sweden were two women and four children, and the UNHCR certainly would have an issue with any forced deportation of children. The British government said all those it was sending last week were single adult males, but their destinations included Baghdad, Ninawa, Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din - all areas the UNHCR considers unsafe.
Five governorates unsafe
“We are very clear in our guidelines,” said Sybella Wilkes. “Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Ninawa and Salah ad-Din are still not safe, in view of serious human rights violations and continuing security incidents in those areas. We specifically ask governments not to return people to those five governorates, and we are disappointed they are ignoring our guidelines.”
The general secretary of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, Dashty Jamal, blamed the rise in forced removals on the electoral success of right wing parties in a number of European countries. He told IRIN: “Most of the EU countries’ right-wing parties have united together to change their immigration policy, and deport back all Iraqis who apply for asylum in their country.”
He said that as well as the charter flights run by Frontex, individual refugees are being sent back almost every night on scheduled flights to Jordan. “I believe that no part of Iraq is safe, even Kurdistan. It is like the UN saying that Berne in Switzerland is safe but Zurich is not safe. This is not the time to send people back. They are playing with the lives of innocent people.”
Contacted by IRIN, the UK’s border agency denied there had been any overall policy recently to deport more Iraqi asylum-seekers. Detailed figures of deportations over the past two months are not yet available, but a spokesperson insisted that every case is looked at individually and considered on its merits. “We only ever return those whom the Border Agency and the courts are satisfied are not in need of our protection, and who have failed to comply with a request to leave.”
Are the Agency and the courts ignoring the UNHCR guidelines on safe and unsafe areas? “A whole range of factors are taken into account,” the spokesperson told IRIN. “And from the UK’s point of view we have to be satisfied that they don’t need our protection.”
The UNHCR has been lobbying since June against the forced removals to Iraq, but says so far they have not seen any shift in position by Western European governments. Sybella Wilkes says she is disappointed. “I would like them to consider that they have a minority of Iraqi asylum-seekers in their countries. And this is not a very positive example when Iraq’s neighbours have much greater numbers, and have been much more generous and welcoming.”
Dashty Jamal told IRIN on 28 September that a number of Iraqis in the UK had received tickets for a flight back to Iraq on 6 October, and that a demonstration was being planned that day outside the Iraqi embassy in London to protest at the way returnees are treated when they get to Baghdad.
|Refugee Returns September 2009 - August 2010 (Individuals)|
2009 - August 2010
|Data source: MoDM, DDM, City Councils Baghdad, Diyala. All data has been collected inside Iraq. All figures have been rounded to the nearest 10.|