The United Nations last night accused the government of holding a 'sword of Damocles' over the heads of Iraqi refugees in Britain after it emerged that the Home Office had won a landmark test case giving it the power to return refugees to war-torn parts of their home country, including Basra and Baghdad.
The ruling, which is being studied closely by other European countries, has alarmed refugee support groups, who say it means asylum seekers from war zones could be returned to other dangerous countries, such as Somalia.
The Refugee Legal Centre has launched an urgent appeal against the ruling by the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal, which it says paves the way for the removal of the majority of Iraqi asylum seekers in the UK.
'If we didn't appeal the tribunal's decision, the government would have a free hand to forcibly remove hundreds of Iraqi civilians to Baghdad,' said Caroline Slocock, chief executive of the legal centre.
The test case, the culmination of a series of legal challenges that started last year, hinged on a European Council directive guaranteeing refugees the right to protection in the UK if their return to their native country meant a 'serious threat to their life' because of 'international or internal armed conflict'.
The UK has been returning Iraqis to the north of their country for some time. But the test case is considered pivotal in legal circles in defining what protection should be given to refugees fleeing war zones. Neither the Refugee Convention nor the European Convention on Human Rights guarantees refugees from war zones the right to remain in the UK, whereas the council directive was considered to offer them a much higher level of protection.
But following the tribunal's decision, the government now has the power to remove anyone to any part of Iraq. 'We are pleased that the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal has agreed with our view and found that conditions in Iraq are such that an ordinary individual Iraqi civilian is not at serious risk from indiscriminate violence,' a spokesman for the Home Office said.
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'We will continue to consider every asylum and human rights claim on its individual merits in accordance with our international obligations. We will ensure that we continue to monitor the situation in Iraq carefully so that our asylum and human rights decisions continue to reflect the latest available information.'
The government argued at the tribunal that there was no 'internal armed conflict' in Iraq as defined by the directive. And Home Office lawyers successfully argued the general risks to the refugee in the test case - a man known as KH - were not sufficient for him to be granted protection.
The tribunal ruling has wide implications for Iraqi asylum seekers. It stated: 'Neither civilians in Iraq generally, nor civilians even in provinces and cities worst affected by the armed conflict, can show they face a "serious and individual threat" to their "life or person"... merely by virtue of being civilians.'
The ruling has prompted a strong reaction from the UN, which has urged the government not to start sending people back to the most dangerous parts of Iraq. 'We strongly advise against the return of anyone to central or southern Iraq,' said Jacqueline Parlevliet, deputy representative with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 'As things now stand a sword of Damocles hangs over the head of every Iraqi in the UK. The way this ruling has been phrased means their protection needs are no longer recognised by the Home Office.'
The government's decision to argue for its right to return Iraqis has highlighted its increasingly tough line on asylum issues. Before 2003 the government recognised that people fleeing war zones could be granted a limited period of leave to remain in the UK until the situation improved.
But the Home Office scrapped the policy in 2004 amid concerns it acted as a 'pull factor' which encouraged asylum claims. Although the government recently started accepting Iraqis' asylum claims if they had worked for the British military, it is reluctant to allow other Iraqis to remain. The European Council for Refugees and Exiles has found 13 per cent of Iraqis' asylum claims were approved in the first instance in the UK last year compared with 82 per cent in Sweden and 85 per cent in Germany. Last year just over 500 Iraqis were allowed to remain in the UK. 'Despite its active role in the region, the UK has given very little support to Iraqis,' Slocock said.
More than two million people have fled Iraq since 2003.
© 2008 The Guardian