The government’s programme of forcibly returning failed asylum seekers to Iraq is expected to result in a maximum of only 20 people being expelled from Britain, according to a leaked Home Office paper.
The internal briefing note passed to the Guardian confirms that the immigration service has detained “a large group of suitable Iraqis” to be flown to Cyprus before being put on Ministry of Defence planes to northern Iraq. But the Home Office privately admits that it is likely to face so many legal challenges by those selected for deportation that a maximum of 20 people will be escorted out of the country. It is believed that more than 70 people, mainly of Kurdish origin, were initially detained pending deportation.
The disclosure raises questions about why ministers have embarked on a contentious policy—strongly objected to by the UN high commissioner for refugees—for such a small group of people, and about the cost of chartering planes for only 20 deportees. “We are expecting there to be many judicial review applications and other legal challenges which will remove candidates from the flight list, and we expect to be left with a group (max. 20) who will be removed with escorts,” says the internal briefing paper. “They will be flown to Cyprus from where the MoD will fly them in one of their planes directly to Erbil in the Kurdish regional government administered area of Iraq.”
The immigration service intends to charter planes to transport the deportees because there are no scheduled flights from Britain to Iraq. Two scheduled flights on September 6 and 13 were postponed after a high court judge heard the start of the first legal challenge to the deportations. The challenge will resume today.
The internal Home Office briefing note on Iraq shows officials dismissing opposition to the forced returns from the UNHCR and the Refugee Council, saying the government strongly believes that “enforced returns are necessary to maintain the integrity of our asylum system”.
It acknowledges Refugee Council concerns that no airport in Iraq is approved by the international civil aviation authorities and that flying civilian aircraft into Baghdad is unsafe. But it has “factored these concerns into the planning we have done over many months”.
Although the original decision to start the expulsion of failed Iraqi asylum seekers was taken in February 2004 by the then home secretary, David Blunkett, the programme was delayed until a memorandum of understanding was struck with the interim Iraqi government just before the elections in January. This memorandum, which the government refuses to publish, covers immigration offenders and not those involved in terrorism.
The Home Office says that for the time being it is not sending back women and children. Those being returned are sent to areas not affected by insurgent action.