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The United Kingdom should cancel plans to return failed asylum-seekers to Iraq at this time given unsafe conditions in that country, Human Rights Watch said today. The U.K. Home Office has already rounded up scores of Iraqis and detained them in deportation centers, suggesting that such returns may be imminent.

The Home Office confirmed on August 15 that the authorities are detaining failed asylum seekers in preparation for deportation to Iraq, but has declined to provide numbers. According to the Refugee Council, a London-based non-governmental organization, the authorities had detained 43 Iraqis as of August 13. Press reports indicate that the number now may be as high as 100.

A Home Office spokeswoman said on August 14 that not all areas in Iraq are affected by armed attacks, and that only persons not at risk of persecution or requiring humanitarian protection would be sent back. A Ministry of Defence plane is reportedly scheduled to fly the first group to Arbil, in the mainly Kurdish northern part of the country, on August 28.

“At a time when the Foreign Office advises British citizens against traveling to Iraq and warns of attacks by insurgents, it is perverse to round up Iraqis to send them back against their will,” said Joe Stork, deputy director Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Division. “Safety and security are entirely relative in Iraq today, so this is not the time to be forcing anyone to return.”

Human Rights Watch said that the situation in Iraq remains extremely unstable. In addition to a general absence of law and order in many parts of the country, insurgent attacks and indiscriminate bombings have also occurred in Arbil and other northern cities, posing a grave risk to civilians. Individuals also risk kidnapping and assassination.

The U.K. Foreign Office website, updated on August 17, warns that despite “fewer security incidents and heavy security” in the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Sulaimaniyya, “there is still a threat of attack.” The site notes, “On June 20 at least 13 people were killed in Arbil when a suicide bomber attacked police.” A May 4 attack on a police recruitment center in Arbil, the website says, resulted in “a large loss of life.”

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, in a September 2004 Return Advisory that remains in effect, “strongly advise[d]” states to suspend any forced returns of Iraqi nationals “until further notice” and urged states to “postpone the introduction of measures which are intended to induce voluntary returns.”

International law prohibits the return of anyone to a place where his or her life or freedom may be at risk. Given the precarious security situation prevailing in Iraq, the forced return of persons to that country risks violating a range of fundamental rights, including the right to life and liberty, as well as the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Human Rights Watch said that individuals threatened with forced repatriation should have the right to challenge deportation and detention orders. The organization also said that detentions should only be used as a last resort, when returns are imminent and for a narrow set of circumstances such as risk of flight.

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