Protests as asylum-seekers are returned to Iraq

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A Government-chartered flight carrying 44 Iraqi asylum-seekers touched down in Baghdad yesterday amid claims that deportations to the Middle East trouble spot were a flagrant breach of international law.

The Air Italy-operated aircraft is thought to have left Stansted airport in Essex early yesterday morning after the Iraqi detainees were transferred from two short-term holding centres in southern England.

It is now known that up to six Iraqis set for deporation won last minute reprieves after the courts declared the terms of their removal to be unlawful.

The asylum flight to Baghdad is the first since the start of the war six years ago. 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” towards 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 advises the public 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.” Many of the Iraqi asylum seekers on baord yesterdays’ plane say they fear retribution and persecution in Baghdad.

Ms Slocock said: “The Government should have waited. The injunction we received last night said this secrecy was unlawful. Clearly the flight should not have proceeded.”

Her concerns were echoed by Sandy Buchan, chief executive of Refugee Action: “If Baghdad is now deemed to be safe then where on earth is deemed dangerous?”In the first six months of 2009, 1,891 civilians were reported to have died due to violence in Iraq. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said that no Iraqis from the five central provinces – including Baghdad – should be forcibly returned.

All the Iraqis deported under the Home Office’s Operation Ringat have had had their asylum applications rejected by the Home Office.

Yesterday’s removals are in advance of an Iraq “country guidance” case before the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal is to be heard in January. Mr Buchan added: “We urge the Government to listen to its own advice and that of the UN Refugee Agency and halt forced removals now until we can guarantee the safety of returnees in an humane and dignified manner.”

Witnesses who watched the deportations said G4S security guards were employed to carry out the forced removals of the detainees who were bussed to the airport on a vehicle owned by W&H Tours which advertise themselves offering “coach tours, excursions and short breaks to UK and Europe”.

A spokesman for the company said was “unable to talk about” his company’s role in the transport of the Iraqis.

One Iraqi, who was taken to the airport but was not put on the flight, told the International Federation of Iraq Refugees: “They took people one by one from the buses to the plane. When my friends started shouting [that] they couldn’t go back, these big security guards handcuffed them and strong-armed them out of the bus [and] onto the plane.”

He added: “They were treated like prisoners: it was like watching the footage from Guantanamo. I don’t know why they even took me on the coaches: my ticket was cancelled yesterday. It’s wrong to treat people like this.”

The Home Office declined to comment on the flight.