Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Once viewed as “havens” for refugees fleeing the violence of Iraq, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway have become places where they are in danger of deportation. For the past ten months, local media have been slamming their respective governments for carrying out forced repatriations of Iraqi asylum seekers, and this despite calls for caution and concerns expressed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The last repatriation flight saw 40 Iraqi asylum seekers deported from Britain arrive in Baghdad on 21 June, according to unofficial sources. This was the third deportation from Great Britain in a week.
The BBC has complained that the flights are shrouded in secrecy, and journalists have not been allowed to see or talk to the refugees.
The British government says the parts of Iraq they are returning to are safe. However, the UNHCR noted that the applicants, from the provinces of Baghdad, Diyala, Niniveh, Salahuddin and Kirkuk, are entitled international protection because they are refugees according to the 1951 Convention or belong to protected groups depending on the cases.
The security situation in the areas of origin remains uncertain and human rights violations continue therein. All this is sufficient ground for international protection.
A never-ending Calvary
When deportees arrive at Baghdad airport, they are examined by Iraqi authorities and detained by police for paper checks before they are sent on their way. Often however, detention can last up to a week. Entire families with women and children are held in police stations with the prospect of release in a country still affected by high levels of terrorism and crime. Last year, a group of repatriated refugees were sent back because their papers were not in order.
The BBC added that British authorities are acting without the involvement of the UNHCR, and that nothing is known about the people repatriated, whether they have criminal records, or had just been unsuccessful in claiming asylum.
When asked, the United Kingdom Border Agency neither confirmed nor denied that deportations were being carried out.
Not only in Great Britain
Forced repatriations are not a British prerogative. Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and France are doing the same. In October 2009, an investigation by Swedish radio revealed that Swedish authorities were deporting Iraqi asylum seekers, especially if they belonged to religious minorities and were more exposed to persecution.
According to the authors of the report, the criteria used by the Immigration Office to determine whether someone was a refugee or not, or in danger once returned to his country of origin, were completely arbitrary.
A man, who did not give his name for security reasons, said he was the victim of an attack, which barely missed him, because he sold alcoholic beverages but his application for asylum was nevertheless rejected because having survived he was already safe in Iraq. Eyewitnesses who spoke to Swedish radio said that Swedish police also use intimidation against people who would not be “voluntarily” repatriated.
Last year, Amnesty International said that most new applications for refugee status by Iraqis were turned down by the Swedish Immigration Council and the Court of Appeal on immigration ruled that there was no armed conflict in Iraq. In the past, almost all Iraqi applicants were granted some form of protection.
According to the UNHCR, Europe gets 75 per cent of asylum seekers. A growing number of them are Iraqis and Afghans. In 2009, 14,000 Iraqis applied for asylum, the highest number for a single country. By turning to repatriation, European governments are trying to discourage Iraqis from choosing Europe as a place of refuge.
Under European law, refugees must settle in the first EU country of entry. For thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, this means Greece. However, greek authorities have only granted refugee status to about 1 per cent of applicants.
The problem is that criteria for refugee status vary from country to country.
The European Commission has proposed changes to the law to get each EU member state to take in some of refugees so that they do not become a burden only for border states. However, the proposal comes at a time of deep economic crisis, with rising unemployment, which immigration into a hot potato.
Although there are no solid figures on the number of refugees, their profile and the nature of their claim for international protection, the United Nations remains very concerned.
Many fear that forced repatriations from Europe might set a precedent for other countries with much larger numbers of Iraqi refugees and greater problems, like Syria and Jordan.