Europe urged not to turn away Iraqi refugees

The continued unrest in Iraq has pushed asylum applications up for the first time in four years, according to UN figures published today, with the increase coming as European countries which had previously extended a warm welcome to Iraqis are starting to close their doors.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) announced that the number of people seeking asylum in 2007 rose 5 per cent to 647,200. The main factor was the "large number of Iraqis seeking international protection in Europe", which accounted for 52,000 of the claims.

But yesterday, Antonio Guterres, the head of UNCHR, warned Europe to keep out the welcome mat for genuine Iraqi asylum-seekers or risk Middle Eastern countries following their lead and expelling thousands of people, who would then inevitably head further west, sending an even bigger wave towards Europe.

"I think it is very important for the Europeans to understand that this is not the moment to send Iraqis back," Mr Guterres said in an interview in London ahead of World Refugee Day on Friday.

Of the 4.7 million people estimated to have been displaced by the fighting in Iraq, almost two million are sheltering in neighbouring Syria and Jordan, which are struggling to shoulder the financial burden.

"It's a very negative message for Syria and Jordan to know that European countries are sending back Iraqis when they have a few thousand, when these countries have hundreds of thousands," Mr Guterres said. "And one can imagine what would happen if Syria and Jordan decided to expel these people. They would probably not return to Iraq, and so Europe would be facing a massive inflow."

Outside the Middle East region, it is Sweden that has until now taken the brunt of the Iraqi refugee influx. Sodertalje, a small town outside the capital, became known as "Mosul-on-Stockholm" because it took one in every 20 people seeking asylum in Europe.

However, the Swedish Supreme Court has now ruled that there is no armed conflict in Iraq and this means that Iraqis are now only considered to be refugees if they can prove that they have been individually threatened.

"This has led to an increase in the level of rejection and to a limited number of rejected cases being sent back," Mr Guterres said.

However, Sweden is still one of Europe's good guys. In Greece, which is often the first EU port of call for those Iraqis fleeing overland via Turkey, the rate of recognition for refugees from Iraq is essentially zero per cent. And this causes problems when under EU law, people can be sent back to the country of entry. "That is why we have been asking European countries not to apply the regulations and send people back to Greece," Mr Guterres said, explaining that it was tantamount to sending them back to Iraq.

In its latest report on the Iraqi refugee crisis, Amnesty International said that the treatment of Iraqis seeking protection abroad had taken a sharp turn for the worst. "Coercive mechanisms, such as the withdrawal of assistance to propel people to return, as well as forcible return and the failure to recognise individuals as refugees, have become more widespread," it said. "The number of countries now attempting to deport rejected Iraqi asylum-seekers is at a record high."

Asylum policies across Europe vary widely, particularly given that some of the recent entrants to the EU used to be the countries of origin of asylum-seekers. France will assume the presidency of the Europe Union on 1 July, and has said that it will present a new pact on immigration and asylum.

"We hope that this will be an occasion for countries to co-ordinate their policies not by having a minimum common denominator on asylum but to take the best practices that exist," Mr Guterres said.