Asylum: the peers' revolt

Their Lordships speak out: deportations to Iran must end
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Britain must radically change its immigration policy and end immediately the deportation of failed asylum-seekers who fear persecution in Iran, a group of leading peers will tell the Government today.

The call for a moratorium on asylum removals is a direct response to the plight of Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian teenager facing execution if he returns to Iran, whose case has been taken up by The Independent.

In a letter written to this newspaper, 17 members of the House of Lords say the case of Mr Kazemi demonstrates a change of policy is now the "only moral course" for the Government to follow.

And in a stark warning on capital punishment in Iran, the Lords report that, in January alone, more than 30 prisoners were executed for a range of offences deemed criminal by the Middle East state.

The campaign for a more compassionate asylum policy has also been taken up in the House of Commons, where 46 MPs have signed an early day motion demanding that the Government "asserts its position as a supporter of human rights" by granting Mr Kazemi sanctuary. The peers' letter, signed by – among others – the film director David Puttnam, the former Commons speaker Betty Boothroyd, and the human rights barrister Helena Kennedy QC, comes the day after a damning report into Britain's immigration system which described the treatment of refugees in this country as "shameful."

Jonathan Cox, coordinator of the Independent Asylum Commission, discusses their interim findings as part of the citizen’s review of the asylum system in the UK, and why they feel that the system is still not fit for purpose.

That report, published by the Independent Asylum Commission, led by a former senior judge, said the immigration policy denied sanctuary to some refugees who were in genuine need of help.

Human rights groups believe the Lords' letter and yesterday's report mark a key moment in government thinking on asylum which they hope will lead to a radical overhaul of the list of countries considered too dangerous for asylum-seekers to be deported to. Asylum rights campaigners also hope such a significant intervention will lead to a broader moratorium on deportations to all countries with poor or questionable human rights records, not just Iran.

But the Lords believe Mr Kazemi's case is of such grave concern they must act to change British asylum policy on Iran first.

"The case of Mehdi Kazemi demonstrates that a moratorium on the removal of those who could face persecution, torture or execution in Iran is the only moral course of action," the peers write in their letter.

Mr Kazemi is still being held in an immigration detention centre in the Netherlands from where he is expected to be transferred to the UK in the next few days. He moved to Britain in 2005 to study English in London and Brighton. But, while he was here, he discovered that his former boyfriend had been executed for sodomy and his own life was in danger because he had been named as the man's lover.

Mr Kazemi's family, some of whom have lived in the United Kingdom for more than 30 years, urged him to claim asylum. But, last year, the Home Office rejected his application forcing him to flee to the Netherlands.

His case provoked a public outcry and, this month, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, agreed to reconsider his claim.

Speaking from an immigration detention centre in Rotterdam last week, Mr Kazemi said he still feared for his future. "I know what Jacqui Smith has said about my case and that, of course, is a good thing. But I know what this Government can do to me. They tried to take me at Christmas two years ago when everyone was away, even my lawyer."

It was only the intervention of his MP, the Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes, that prevented his deportation. In an 11th-hour appeal, Mr Hughes persuaded the Home Office to halt the deportation so he could look into the case.

Announcing the decision to rehear Mr Kazemi's case, Ms Smith said: "I have decided Mr Kazemi's case should be reconsidered on his return to the UK."

In their letter the Lords say: "We welcome the decision of the Home Secretary to look again at Mr Kazemi's case and to reconsider the original decision to refuse him asylum in the United Kingdom. The Home Office have acted appropriately in this, as indeed they have acted within the law throughout this case.

"However, this is not simply a legal matter but a moral one too... when we are making decisions of life or death, we must be aware of the human consequences of the cold letter of the law."

In response to an earlier plea by 70 peers to grant Mr Kazemi asylum, Ms Smith defended the Home Office record.

She said in a letter seen by The Independent: "I can assure you the Government is committed to providing protection for those individuals found to be genuinely in need in accordance with our commitments under international law.

"The Home Office Country of Origin Information Service closely monitors the human rights situation in all the countries that generate asylum-seekers to the UK, including Iran. It provides accurate, objective, sourced and up-to-date information."

She added "The published Country Reports are updated on a rolling basis and are compiled from a wide range of external information sources including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees World Health Organisation, human rights organisations, news media and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

"The current Home Office Iran Country Report was published on 31 January 2008 and includes a specific section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons."

The case of Mehdi Kazemi

Mehdi Kazemi came to Britain in 2005 to study English at a college in Brighton. But although the young Iranian had settled well into British life he always intended returning home to Tehran. In April 2006 he received a telephone call from his father who told him Medhi's former boyfriend had been executed. He had been interrogated by the state police authorities and named Medhi as his partner. Fearing for his life if he returned to Iran, Mehdi claimed asylum in Britain. But last year his case was refused. He fled to the Netherlands where he was detained in an immigration centre. A Dutch court ordered him to be returned to the UK, where the Home Secretary agreed to reconsider his case. In an open letter to Jacqui Smith, Mehdi said: "I cannot stop my attraction towards men. This is something that I will have to live with the rest of my life. If I return to Iran I will be arrested and executed."

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