UN criticises Blunkett over Iraqi refugees

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David Blunkett was accused last night of imposing "punitive" measures against Iraqi asylum-seekers by the United Nations' refugees agency.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees accused the Home Secretary of using coercion to force refugees to leave Britain to face life in the midst of the worsening violence in Iraq.

The UNHCR has sent an official warning notice to the Government saying that the continuing violence is too great to allow refugees to return safely. Tony Blair has claimed that daily life for most ordinary people inside Iraq has improved since the war, and that conditions are now stabilising.

A majority of the 6,400 refugees from Iraq who arrived in Britain in the 12 months to June this year have been left destitute, said the UNHCR. "Only five Iraqis out of 6,400 were recognised as refugees," a spokesman said. "We have told the Home Secretary that recognition level is alarmingly low. It is lower than for Venezuelans.

"They were told on arrival that if they did not apply for voluntary repatriation, they would lose the opportunity of benefits and other means of assistance. They will lose their council flat and their benefits."

The official said: "They have been subject to a punitive measure to force them back to Iraq. They have been left destitute in this country. There are exceptions for those with a child under 18, or if they are a victim of trauma, or on kidney dialysis but in 99.9 per cent of cases they have been refused asylum."

The UNHCR wrote to the Government last month warning that Iraq was so unstable that it could not protect Iraqis who returned to their country from European states.

The warning notice said: "UNHCR asks states to postpone the introduction of measures which are intended to induce voluntary returns, including of rejected cases. This includes financial or other incentives and particularly deterrent or punitive measures."

It also called for the forced repatriation of Iraqi nationals to all parts of Iraq to be suspended until further notice. Britain does not forcibly return Iraqi nationals but the UNHCR said that its current approach amounted to coercion.