Skip to main content

Iraq: Between false refuge and the peril of return

Published in: OpenDemocracy.net

The UK's Iraqi asylum seekers are now being forced to return not only to the more stable northern region, but to central and southern Iraq. Whatever responsibility UK citizens might feel for them is clearly not shared by those taking these decisions. How then do they decide?

Peace, or something like it, breaks out in Iraq. US-led foreign forces declare violence has tapered off to the lowest levels in years, thanks to additional troops, security cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders and erstwhile insurgents, and a tentative halt to the activities of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. An Iraqi government derided as sectarian and dysfunctional steps up to promote political accommodation and begins taking more responsibility for security and providing services. Stability takes hold, paving the way for about two million Iraqis who have fled the country to make their way home.

An uncertain future

The scenario outlined above can be, and is, disputed. Whether or how long a period of relative calm will last remains to be seen; Iraq's political future - including a long-term US military presence being negotiated in Baghdad and Washington - is itself an open question. But on the subject of refugees, a dangerous certainty now unites Iraq's government, the United States, and some Western countries, notably Britain, where Iraqis have sought a haven from the bloodshed that the US invasion ushered in. They are encouraging - and in the case of Britain, forcing - the return of Iraqi refugees on the grounds that the country is now stable enough to receive them. Politically attractive though this may be, it also contradicts international law prohibiting the forced return of anyone to territory where his or her life or freedom is threatened.

With prodding from Washington, the Iraqi government has renewed calls for refugees to return. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced at a recent summit on Iraqi reconstruction that his government would work to create conditions that facilitate return and provide financial incentives to Iraqis who return from abroad; the Ministry of Migration and Displacement subsequently announced that $195 million would be allocated to cover returnees' expenses.

Since 2005, Britain has returned failed asylum seekers to areas controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers the three northern governorates that are the most stable part of Iraq, on the grounds that the region is safe. On 11 June 2008, the Guardian reported that the UK Border Agency planned to expand its deportation scheme to include other parts of Iraq, recently detaining dozens of failed Iraqi asylum seekers for possible deportation, including some from areas not controlled by the KRG. If confirmed, this would harden a policy toward Iraqi asylum seekers that was unforgiving from the start.

A contradictory policy

Home Office correspondence leaked in March stated that failed asylum seekers will lose financial support unless they agree to a voluntary repatriation program under the auspices of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The repatriation procedure as described in this correspondence included a waiver absolving the deporting authority of any responsibility for what may happen following repatriation. The basis for deportation to the whole of Iraq has drawn strength from a ruling in the UK Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (AIT) earlier this year, narrowing the scope for protection against deportation under European Council directive 15(c). The AIT's ruling found "neither civilians in Iraq generally nor civilians even in provinces and cities worst-affected by the armed conflict can show they face a ‘serious and individual threat' to their ‘life or person'...merely by virtue of being civilians."

Contradictions abound in the justifications for repatriating Iraqis to the north and elsewhere. The Home Office December 2007 immigration policy statement on Iraq explicitly rejects the opinion of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that relocation to central and southern Iraq is unsafe; yet failed asylum seekers who agree to voluntary repatriation are asked to absolve those who send them back from any responsibility for what may happen after they arrive. UK authorities express a strong preference that returns be voluntary; yet surveys of Iraqi refugees, including Human Rights Watch interviews with those who have returned, indicate that economic and administrative pressure nearly always figure prominently in even voluntary returns to Iraq.

To justify sending asylum seekers back, the asylum tribunal invokes and works to argue around a European Council directive aimed at preventing deportations back into armed conflict. That reading runs up against the UK's broad commitment, as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to the principle of non-refoulement: the agreement not to return refugees to countries where their lives or freedom are at risk.

Political expediency

There is, however, one depressing note of consistency that emerges from Britain's treatment of Iraqi asylum seekers. Like the United States, its senior partner in the invasion of Iraq, Britain appears willing to use the lives of refugees to bolster political arguments for success in Iraq - the US by admitting only symbolic numbers of refugees, the UK by returning asylum seekers to danger. Perhaps the desire to claim victory or at least validation in Iraq by citing diminished violence - though by any standard other than the carnage of recent years, Iraq remains an incredibly dangerous place - as evidence of stability that could support the return of refugees, has trumped other considerations.

These considerations should include the dire conditions facing approximately 2.7 million people who are internally displaced within Iraq; UNHCR estimates that more than a million of the internally displaced lack adequate shelter and food. The head of Iraq's parliamentary committee on displacement last month suggested that the committee should simply resign over what he called the government's inability to address the needs of the displaced and refugees.

The narrative of emerging security and stability in Iraq, should it develop into durable fact, would be welcome. Meanwhile, Britain, like the United States, bears particular responsibility toward the refugees whose flight originated in the chaos and violence that the invasion of Iraq has wrought. It can begin meeting that responsibility by acknowledging that those Iraqis who seek safety in Britain have legitimate fears about what awaits them at home.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.