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UK: Act fast on Iraqi refugee crisis in Middle East

NGOs welcome new policy on interpreters, but call for UK action on wider crisis

The UK government’s decision to reconsider its refusal to grant special asylum arrangements for Iraqi interpreters serving with British forces in Iraq is welcome, but does not go far enough, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the UK’s Refugee Council said today.

“The UK has been shamefully slow to respond to the massive Iraqi refugee crisis that is overwhelming the Middle East,” said Tom Porteous, London Director of Human Rights Watch. “It should now move very quickly not only to grant asylum to those Iraqis who have served the British in Iraq, but also to provide significant assistance to those countries that are bearing the brunt of the crisis.”

There are now some 2.2 million Iraqi refugees in the Middle East. In particular Jordan and Syria, which have been extremely generous in providing protection up to now, are straining to cope with the influx. They are now in urgent need of assistance.

Countries in the region have imposed onerous visa and passport requirements on Iraqis fleeing the mayhem in their country, effectively closing their borders to fleeing Iraqis and jeopardizing the right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of all people to seek asylum in other countries.

“If the international system of protection for refugees is to be preserved all countries need to help at times of crisis, “ said Donna Covey, Chief Executive of the UK Refugee Council. “As well as taking other measures, the UK could start by giving refugee status to the small number of Iraqis who have made asylum claims here. And it should stop all forced removals to Iraq immediately.”

Amnesty International’s Refugee Programme Director, Jan Shaw, said: “Today’s decision doesn’t go far enough. Despite the rapidly escalating refugee crisis in the region, the UK Government has done little or nothing to assist with this situation. We continue to urge the UK government to make every effort to alleviate the severe humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Middle East.”

Earlier this year (12 April) Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council wrote jointly to then Prime Minister Tony Blair alerting him both to the plight of Iraqi interpreters, whose lives are at risk because of assistance they provided to British forces, and to the wider refugee crisis. The letter, which was copied to Gordon Brown, urged Mr. Blair to take three steps to alleviate the increasingly severe humanitarian crisis:

1. To greatly extend the package of support to countries in the region who are sheltering the vast majority of refugees from Iraq;
2. To offer some of these refugees, including those who had worked for the UK in Iraq, the chance to resettle to the UK;
3. To suspend forcible removals of Iraqi asylum seekers in the UK and offer all Iraqi asylum seekers now in the UK a status that would allow them to be supported or to work.

So far there has been little effort on the part of the UK to address any of these elements of the refugee crisis.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council are now urging Gordon Brown’s government to take a fresh look at this international problem. The UK should be taking the lead in Europe and in the world in addressing one of the most serious consequences of the Iraq conflict. The government should immediately announce a more generous, more principled, more coherent, and more far-sighted set of UK policies to deal with the crisis.

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