Plans are being drawn up at the Home Office for the enforced return of asylum-seekers to Iraq despite opposition from the United States.
In an interview with The Independent, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said he wanted to deport refugees to northern Iraq so they could help with the country's reconstruction.
The move would be highly controversial given the level of violence and instability in the country and the difficulties in maintaining electricity supplies and other services. But it would ease pressure on Britain's asylum system, which is under strain from the numbers of applicants and under pressure from political opponents. Last year, 14,000 Iraqis applied for asylum in Britain and Iraqi Kurds were among the biggest ethnic groups claiming refuge.
A few Iraqis have returned voluntarily, but Mr Blunkett said he intended to introduce compulsory repatriation to the Kurdish-run north. "I would like to do that because I would like those people to be able to contribute to rebuilding the country," he said. "They came here on the premise they were threatened with death and torture. When you are no longer threatened ... I think there is a moral obligation to return and assist in the rebuilding of the country. I think that is a right and proper thing to do and we would like to facilitate that and help them do it. We're in a dialogue with the Americans because the American-led administration is very reluctant at the moment to declare even the northern part of Iraq available to [anyone] other than volunteer returners. I'm quite keen to do it because northern Iraq had separated itself out from the Saddam Hussein regime and was safe before."
Mr Blunkett admitted there were problems around Mosul, but said northern Iraq was "generally overwhelmingly safe" for people returning.
He promised that asylum-seekers forcibly returned would not be abandoned "on the tarmac" but given practical help to reintegrate. In further evidence of a hard line, the Home Office confirmed yesterday that asylum-seekers could have their children taken into care to persuade them to return home. Parents whose claims have been rejected would be told to take a "voluntary" flight home or lose their benefits. They could then have their children taken from them on the basis that they would not be able to afford to support them. Up to 2,000 children could be affected by the measure, to be announced in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday. A Home Office spokesman said it was designed to protect children.
Maeve Sherlock, the director of the Refugee Council, said: "Breaking up families harms children and should be done only when there is absolutely no alternative. The Government should abandon this plan and work instead to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the asylum system."
In his interview, the Home Secretary said he would press ahead with his proposals for "regional protection zones", where refugees could submit asylum applications close to their home countries. Several European countries have objected to the idea, but Mr Blunkett said Britain was working with Denmark and Holland to open the first some time next year. One could be Tanzania, close to Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mr Blunkett said: "The European Union has been very slow on this because very often they are following an agenda that's 10 years out of date."Reuse content