More than 30 Iraqi asylum-seekers deported to Baghdad by the Home Office have been refused entry to their own country and flown back to Britain.
In a hugely embarrassing blow to the Government's immigration and asylum policy, Iraqi ministers are understood to have ordered the men back to Britain after Baghdad immigration officers raised questions about the legality of the deportations.
Ten other Iraqi asylum-seekers were allowed entry to the Iraqi capital. Witnesses on the flight said the 10 men were given $100 (£60) each by the British embassy then left to fend for themselves in the Iraqi capital. In the past few weeks dozens of civilians have been killed by bomb blasts and violence on the streets of Baghdad.
The asylum flight, which also carried between 80 and 100 British security guards, was the first to return failed asylum-seekers to southern Iraq since the beginning of the war in 2003.
Last night refugee charities and human rights groups condemned the Government for allowing the flight to go ahead when the country was in the throes of such violent turmoil.
Amnesty International warned that the deportations to central or southern Iraq risked the lives of the failed Iraqi asylum-seekers.
An Amnesty spokesman said: "Given the reports of killings, bombings and other human rights abuses that continue to come out of Baghdad, it is hard to comprehend that the UK Government considers it a safe place to return people.
"Until the situation improves and it is safe to return to Iraq, these people should be offered some form of protection in the UK."
Last night the men were being held at Brook House detention centre near Gatwick airport where they were seeking advice about their legal position. But a spokesman for the Home Office said that the Government was working with the Iraqi authorities to secure entrance for all the men and was committed to finding another flight to return the detainees to Iraq as soon as possible. He said that ministers had taken advice from the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal, which had said that returns to any part of Iraq were lawful and would not place detainees in danger from violence.
After their return to Britain five of the Iraqis told the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees: "When we landed in Baghdad an Iraqi man in army uniform, with seven other guards with Kalashnikovs, boarded the plane. He asked the immigration officers why they brought us here then asked us if we wanted to come back. He said those of you who want to come back you get off, the rest of you stay where you are."
The witness added: "He told the immigration officers to go away and not to try to send people back by force again. So they took us back to Italy and we had to change planes there."
"K", one of the 10 failed asylum-seekers left in Baghdad, said that he did not go voluntarily and wanted to be returned to Britain. Speaking from the Iraqi capital he said: "They forced 10 of us to get off in Baghdad. They said the British embassy would help us but they just gave us $100 and left us. I'm too scared to go to where I used to live. Everything they told us is a lie."
Lin Homer, chief executive of the UK Border Agency, said: "We are establishing a new route to southern Iraq and have successfully returned 10 Iraqis to the Baghdad area. This is an important first step for us.
"We are working closely with the Iraq government to iron out the issues which led to some of the returnees being sent back, and expect to carry out another flight in the future.
"Having an enforced route for returns is an important part of our overall approach; however the Government prefers the majority of returnees to leave voluntarily."
She said more than 2,500 people had chosen to return to Iraq under the Assisted Voluntary Return Programme in the past three years and that that was expected to continue.
Caroline Slocock, chief executive of the charity Refugee and Migrant Justice, said the resumption of removals to southern Iraq exposed the Government's "cavalier attitude" toward the law.
She said that in June the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government was in breach of its obligations under Article 15(c) of the EU Qualification Directive because it failed to grant protection to people fleeing indiscriminate violence.
The Foreign Office website advises against all travel to Baghdad and the surrounding areas.
Its guidance states: "The situation remains highly dangerous with a continuing high threat of terrorism throughout the country. This includes violence and kidnapping."
The travel advice also warns that targets in Baghdad have included aid agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Ms Slocock said: "The Government should have waited and the fact that the destination or time of the flight was kept secret only makes things worse."