UK/Iraq: Amnesty condemns Blunkett's 'dangerous precedent'

David Blunkett unveiled plans earlier this week to repatriate Iraqi asylum-seekers and argued that the northern part of Iraq was 'generally overwhelmingly safe'. Seemingly contradicting himself, Mr. Blunkett also said that 'the American-led administration is very reluctant at the moment to declare even the northern part of Iraq available to [anyone] other than volunteer returners.'

Mr Blunkett has asserted that 'when you are no longer threatened...there is a moral obligation to return and assist in the rebuilding of the country'.

Amnesty International UK Media Director Lesley Warner said:

'To suggest the return of families with Children's rights to Iraq is madness. Attacks against civilians continue at an alarming rate. The political situation is unstable and there are fears of more widespread violence.

'David Blunkett's plans offer a dangerous precedent to the international system of refugee protection. European countries must live up to their human rights commitments rather than once again shifting the fallout of human rights abuses in Iraq onto the victims themselves.

'The UK and other states where Iraqi refugees have sought protection have a legal responsibility to protect them.'

Amnesty International remains extremely concerned about the worsening situation in Iraq. Security remains a key problem, with the breakdown of law and order and the threat of persecution. Many Iraqi civilians have been killed by armed groups, Coalition forces or armed criminal gangs in different parts of the country, including the north.

The departure of international staff from the vast majority of non-governmental organisations and international agencies, and closure of a large number of projects that provided Iraqis with regular assistance and aid has only heightened the problem. Basic services and housing remain in shortage and unemployment is strife.

Lesley Warner added:

'These proposals fail to consider why people left their country and serve no other purpose than to instil fear among Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers in the very country in which they thought they had found safety.

'The return of Iraqis must be completely voluntary. To physically force people back, or to leave them with no choice but to return would be a breach of international law and would go against the United Nations Security Council resolution 1483.'

Security Council resolution 1483 issued in May underlines that the United Nations has a primary responsibility to ensure that the return of the displaced population is safe, orderly and voluntary.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) urged states hosting Iraqi asylum-seekers 'to continue a ban on forced returns to Iraq, including of rejected asylum seekers, until further notice.' The UNHCR has also said that the evacuation of all international United Nations staff from Baghdad significantly curtailed its ability to monitor returns and undertake reintegration activities.

Rather than states focusing their efforts on how to keep or get Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers out of their territory, Amnesty International calls for members of the international community to ensure that effective reconstruction assistance is available in Iraq, that security is provided in the whole of the country and that national institutions of justice, policing and social reform are able to operate in a rights-respecting manner. Only when such conditions are fulfilled will it be possible for Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers to begin considering return to their places of origin in a manner that is truly voluntary and sustainable.

The Danish government announced earlier this week that 300 Iraqi asylum-seekers who had been rejected will be given 14 days to decide whether they will leave voluntarily; if they do not do so, they will be deprived of their benefits with the exception of food. The Danish government is also investigating the possibility to forcibly return rejected asylum-seekers

Germany last Friday announced plans to return refugees from Iraq, starting as early as next year. While it appears that Germany's plans are for Iraqi refugees to be encouraged to return voluntarily, it has also indicated that it is considering the forcible return of Iraqi refugees as a possibility. Background

In June 2003, Amnesty International expressed concern that compulsory return not be imposed on Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers. While the organisation does not oppose the return of rejected asylum-seekers provided they have had access to a fair and satisfactory asylum procedure, the organisation believes that any return should take place in safety and with dignity and full respect for human rights.

The organisation is concerned that a pattern may be emerging where countries hosting refugees from large source countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq push for early returns to those countries. Amnesty International believes that in situations such as this, where changed conditions in a country are a result of the violent overthrow of a regime, assessments of safety, security and human rights conditions should be even more cautious.

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