Britain accused of failing in its responsibility to refugees

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The few Iraqi refugees who complete the perilous and expensive trip to Britain have little prospect of being allowed to stay.

Of the two million Iraqis who have fled their homeland, only about 9,000 have claimed asylum in this country since Saddam Hussein was toppled by the US-led invasion in March 2003.

Just 1,305 Iraqi asylum-seekers landed in Britain in 2006, a fraction of the 8,950 who arrived in Sweden and fewer than in the Netherlands (2,765), Germany (2,065) and Greece (1,415). They have about a one in eight chance of being allowed to remain.

The asylum applications of 88 per cent of Iraqis were rejected last year, with 12 per cent either being granted asylum or discretionary leave to remain.

Six years ago, about half of all Iraqi asylum-seekers were granted refuge. More Iraqis are now being returned from Britain than arrive. Most go back voluntarily, but there have been a handful of forcible removals to the Kurdish north of the country, despite warnings about instability and violence across the whole of Iraq.

Donna Covey, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, said: "Along with the rest of the international community, the United Kingdom has a responsibility to refugees displaced by the conflict in Iraq and we are not living up to that responsibility. The scale of the refugee crisis is growing and is now so acute that a change in policy towards Iraqi refugees is surely now imperative."

She criticised the Government for not following the lead of other countries, including the United States, in agreeing to resettle some of the refugees sheltering in Iraq's neighbours.

The Government's tough line is a result of tightening border controls in recent years and the Home Office's belief that "there has been a clear change in the conditions in Iraq and, with it, the factors to be considered when Iraqi nationals claim asylum".

There are fears that Iraqis are opting to live in Britain illegally without ever declaring themselves to the authorities for fear of expulsion.

Britain is not alone in its uncompromising attitude to Iraqi refugees. The Netherlands only allowed about 25 per cent to stay last year, Germany 11 per cent and Greece refuses all applications. Sweden, by contrast, allowed more than 90 per cent, with the result that it receives almost half of Europe's Iraqi asylum-seekers. Earlier this year it appealed to its European Union partners to share the load.

Pirkko Kourula, the European director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "Given the seriousness of the situation in Iraq, one would certainly expect a much higher recognition rate for refugees from that country."