The Home Office has ended new awards of "hard case" benefits designed to give short-term support to failed asylum-seekers from Iraq because officials insist there is now a "viable route of return".
They are also writing to scores of Iraqis already receiving benefits asking them to justify their continued support. The Home Office said the issue would be handled on a "case by case basis" and said no asylum-seeker would have benefits stopped without warning.
But a spokesman said that parts of Iraq had been judged safe, while people were already returning to northern Iraq and charter flights had started.
Campaigners attacked the decision, saying Iraq was too unstable for people to be forced to return against their will, and vowed to step up a campaign against the forced removal of Iraqi Kurds whose applications have been rejected.
Dashty Jamal, of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees in Britain, said the Home Office was threatening to withdraw benefits if people did not agree to return to Iraq voluntarily. He said: "This is obviously against human rights. They are pushing for Iraqi Kurdish asylum-seekers to go back voluntarily."
Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "This is a heavy-handed policy that could result in families with children suffering unfairly. We should try to show compassion to all those temporarily here even if they are ultimately to return to their country of origin."
Campaigners are planning demonstrations in London and Birmingham aimed at preventing the forced removal of about 40 Kurdish failed asylum-seekers, who had been expected to be flown back to northern Iraq at the weekend. They also plan to picket British embassies in Sweden, Norway and Sydney.
Under "hard case" asylum rules, housing, food and other support can be given to failed asylum-seekers if they are destitute and cannot leave Britain because there is "no viable route of return" home.
Latest asylum statistics show that more than 8,000 Iraqis have been granted "hard case" support since the start of the year. But officials withdrew the benefit for new claimants at the start of August, arguing that there was now a viable route for Iraqis to return.
Plans to start forced repatriation of failed Iraqi asylum-seekers have been controversial. Human rights groups have called on the Government to delay the process of repatriating failed asylum-seekers, arguing that the country remains too unsafe for people to return.
Both the Refugee Council and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants have objected to the policy after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that no part of Iraq could be considered safe for rejected asylum- seekers.
A Home Office spokes-man stressed that the cases involved people whose claims for asylum and humanitarian support had been unsuccessful. He said: "There are voluntary returns to Iraq and charter flights have gone there. There is a voluntary route of return to Iraq so this support can be withdrawn if we are not satisfied that people are not making efforts and are working to return to Iraq voluntarily."
'I couldn't stay there - they would kill me if they found me'
Fearing for his life, Nawzad Ashad Kader was forced to hide in an animal shed for two months before fleeing to Britain.
He had been jailed and tortured by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) but his father and uncle sold all their valuables, including the family car, to raise the $2,200 (£1,200) needed to get him to a place of safety.
Mr Kader, 40, travelled out of northern Iraq in the back of a lorry and when he arrived in Britain, he was so disoriented he did not know which country he was in. "It was night-time and I did not know where I was, in Germany or in Britain," he said. "In Iraq, I was in jail for 40 days and when I came out, I was in hiding in a shed for sheep. I couldn't stay there for ever because they would kill me if they found me. They were angry with me because my younger brother had joined another Kurdish political party. I felt like killing myself."
In August 2000, he sought asylum and tried to start life over again. He learnt to speak English from scratch and made a few friends. He moved to Liverpool in January 2005 and fell in love with a British-born woman, Suzanne. They planned to marry next year and threw a party a fortnight ago to mark the engagement.
But after losing his application and appeal for asylum in 2003 - after which he was not entitled to state benefits and had to depend on friends - Mr Kader's case has been closed by the Home Office. He has been told he has no further right to appeal.
He faces deportation to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he believes he faces persecution. He no longer knows the whereabouts of his family and fears reprisals from the political group from which he fled.
"I don't know where my brother is. I don't know where my father is or any of my family. If I go back, I could be in danger, and Suzanne will be here," he said.
The couple are campaigning to gain a settlement visa from the Home Office on compassionate grounds, as he no longer knows anyone in Iraq and he feels settled in Britain.
Suzanne, 26, said he has become a part of her large, supportive family and she fears for his safety if he is deported. "As it stands, we have to get special permission from the Home Secretary to marry because he is a failed asylum-seeker. I see that as a breach of my human right to marry someone who I love," she added.
The National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns is supporting his campaign for a visa which would enable him to marry Suzanne and stay in this country.
Arifa AkbarReuse content