Iraqi asylum-seekers to be returned home after Kurdish region is given the all-clear paid

The first batch of Iraqi asylum-seekers who want to go home will return next month, David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said yesterday. They are likely to be flown to Kurdish northern Iraq, which has been as assessed as safe by British officials. Confidence is growing that other parts of the country, such as the southern region around Basra, are also secure.

Agreement on beginning the programme was reached at a meeting in Geneva between Mr Blunkett, his French and German counterparts and the United Nations high commissioner, Ruud Lubbers. Mr Blunkett said: "Over the next few weeks we will move to laying the practical groundwork to enable returns.

"Now Saddam Hussein's regime has been removed from power, thousands of Iraqis who fled to Europe are seeking ways of returning home to help rebuild their country. Iraq needs the skills and commitment of these exiles as it makes the transition to democratic stability and prosperity."

The Home Office believes many Iraqis in exile are ready to return. The case of about 70 Iraqi Kurds in the West Midlands who were being prevented from going home by the Home Office was highlighted last week.

A Home Office spokeswoman stressed the first returns would be voluntary, although she conceded they could eventually become compulsory. She also made clear that, unlike a voluntary returns scheme to Afghanistan, people being returned would not be given any money.

Iraq is by far the most common country of origin for refugees arriving in Britain, with 14,940 applicants for asylum coming last year. But the figure dropped sharply in the first three months of this year as war approached. A pilot scheme in which applicants claiming to be from Iraq took tests probably also had an effect.

Stemming the tide of claims from Iraq is a key factor in government plans to halve the number of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain by the end of the summer.

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