Airline backs out of further deportations

Blow to Government as Air Italy refuses to carry Iraqi asylum-seekers
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An Italian airline which flew more than 40 Iraqi asylum-seekers to Baghdad last week is refusing to take part in any more deportations after a public outcry over the controversial flights.

The decision by Air Italy to end refugee charter work is a further blow to the Government's policy on removing people to the more dangerous parts of southern Iraq. Ministers were embarrassed last week when the Iraqi authorities refused entry to 30 of the failed asylum-seekers on board the Air Italy aircraft.

And human rights groups denounced the removals to Baghdad, the first since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, claiming they breached international law by placing the refugees in grave danger.

A spokesman for Air Italy said that its decision to end its contract with the British Government was a matter of "conscience" and was taken at a board meeting immediately after the return of the Iraqi flight. Francesco Cesari, ground operation manager, said: "We are an airline operating regular and charter flights and sometimes flights-on-demand, usually rescue flights for other airlines and humanitarian flights. We confirm that Air Italy will no longer be flying asylum-seekers to Iraq. The business sometimes must communicate with the consciousness, and this was the reason, conscience."

A spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Deportations to Iraq said: "This is the first victory for all those who acted on their outrage at the deportation of 10 people to Iraq but there are many other companies that continue to profit from the UK's atavistic deportation regime." The coalition called on other private companies to withdraw their services.

The managing director of WH Tours, the British coach company which transported the asylum-seekers from the detention centres to the airport, said he was unaware of the Air Italy decision and would review his company's position. But he added that WH Tours would honour its contact with G4S, the private security company responsible for escorting the asylum-seekers.

The UN refugee agency called on the Government to rethink its policy. A spokesman said: "The UNHCR advises against involuntary returns to Iraq of persons originating from central Iraq until there is a substantial improvement in the security and human rights situation in the country."

Amnesty International warned that the deportations to central or southern Iraq risked the lives of the failed Iraqi asylum-seekers. "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."

A spokeswoman for the Home Office declined to discuss the Air Italy decision, nor would she identify other companies which run charter asylum flights for the Government. "Because we want airlines to work with us in the future we can't go into details for operational reasons," she said.