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on the world: a view on human rights

Gimme Shelter! Mass Removals of Asylum Seekers from Europe (Part II: Iraq)

Many of the problems faced by Afghans being deported are also faced by Iraqis asylum seekers in Europe. They are often sent to a country they barely know, if at all, fearful for their safety and sometimes to regions where the local language and culture is not their own. In addition, they may find themselves displaced more than once in Iraq and facing destitution in spite of the financial aid they may receive under an assisted voluntary return (AVR) or assisted voluntary return and reintegration (AVRR) scheme.

Applying the logic of the internal flight alternative (IFA), dangerous regions are deemed safe for return. Consequently, the number of successful asylum claims has fallen sharply and the number of deportations threatened or carried out against failed Iraqi asylum seekers has gone up.

No deportations

In 2012, following campaigning by Iraqi organisations in Europe, the Iraqi government banned deportation charter flights and forced returns, threatening to fine complicit airlines and returning deportees to Europe. This response broadly continues to date but has not deterred European states.

Rather than use charter flights for deportations to Iraq, the UK prefers to use major airlines to deport failed Iraqi asylum seekers, a practice it is reported to have resumed in 2017. Kurdish asylum seeker Aras Ismail claimed he was injured in April 2017 when he was hooded and handcuffed during a flight to Amman on board Royal Jordanian.

Activists claim there is a secret deal between the British and Iraqi governments, however Ismail’s ordeal on his return flight led to 104 Iraqi MPs signing a parliamentary resolution shortly after, calling on the Iraqi government to “take all necessary measures to prevent the forced deportation of Iraqis from the countries they seek refuge in.”

In April 2018, an Iraqi minister told British parliamentarians during a meeting that the country opposes the return of Iraqi citizens against their will and in breach of their human rights. In a similar statements weeks earlier, the same immigration minister, Jassim Mohamed al-Jaf, criticised calls by some EU countries to deport Iraqi asylum seekers following the reported defeat of ISIS and to “consider the humanitarian dimension when dealing with the issue of Iraqi refugees in their countries”.

Safe as houses

There has also been support for this in the courts. In August 2016, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that returning an Iraqi family that had fled terrorist threats from Sweden would breach their human rights. In addition, militias and not the Iraqi government control many areas.

More recently, the UK’s Upper Tribunal provided new country guidance on the return of Kurds to Iraq, taking into consideration the need to have the correct paperwork in the first place and the difficulties of travelling to other regions from Baghdad, which effectively could make asylum rejections and deportations more difficult. Other court decisions have found the British government in breach of its own advice on the security situation in Iraq.

Legal action is seldom an option, however, with cuts to legal aid, many failed asylum seekers living in almost complete destitution and at least in Finland, government restrictions on asylum seekers’ access to legal assistance since 2017.

Rock and a hard place

As a state that is dependent on donor aid, the Iraqi government’s stance has been admirable and differs sharply from that of the Afghan government. In recent years, however, a change has started to take place with a large rise in return under “voluntary” schemes.

In reality, in most European countries, Iraqi asylum claims are more than likely to be rejected leaving the claimant destitute, unable to work and too poor to pursue other legal avenues. The offer of financial assistance (AVR) and training or employment (AVRR) on return becomes attractive when there are no other viable options. The latter is particularly targeted at failed asylum seekers.

In 2015, Belgium returned over 1000 Iraqis under such schemes and 106 people on one day on 1st February 2016. Since 2015, Germany has returned over 9000 Iraqis under its voluntary return programme, with 450 in just the first quarter of 2018.

In 2017, Iraqis made up the majority of returnees under Finland’s AVRR programme (1044 out of 1353). Finland offer returnees “either cash grants to help them reintegrate or are given in-kind-support like training.” In 2016, the numbers were higher and the Finnish police admitted having carried out forced deportations as well when people refused to leave through AVRR.

While a voluntary return absolves the host country of any responsibility, the threat on the other side is no less. In December 2017, an Iraqi man who agreed to leave voluntarily after his asylum claim was rejected was shot dead in Baghdad weeks after his return. The Finnish authorities admitted that it was not the first time a returnee has been killed in Iraq but it has not led to a change in practice or policy. All returns are currently blocked only because the Iraqi authorities sent “voluntary” returnees lacking the correct paperwork back.

Open to persuasion

Having made individual bilateral agreements with Afghanistan on the removal of failed asylum seekers, in addition to the EU-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward agreement, Finland and Germany have both attempted to make agreements with Iraq.

Finland has been less successful. As part of its 2015 Government action plan on asylum policy, it was hoped a bilateral readmission agreement would be reached with Iraq. However, by early 2017, no agreement had been reached. The Iraqi ambassador to Finland also rejected the likelihood of such an agreement being made. To date, there is no agreement on repatriations between the two countries.


In April 2018, however, Germany, Iraq’s second largest aid donor, reported that it had agreed with the Iraqi authorities “to work closely on the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers”. By pledging “an additional 350 million Euros for emergency aid and reconstruction of infrastructure in 2018”, Germany plans to establish education and employment opportunities through voluntary repatriation. The success of this plan and whether Iraq, which is currently undergoing political change, will make similar agreements to those made by Afghanistan remains to be seen.


With asylum claims falling sharply along with the acceptance of claims, the narrative around immigration and the “refugee crisis” provides a convenient scapegoat to avoid dealing with the real issues European states face.

Such policies help to appease populist anti-immigration and right-wing parties and public sentiment. According to German lawyer Heiko Habbe, deportations have “no relation to the situation in Afghanistan, which has been deteriorating ever since [they started in 2016], but it is being done to show the government is doing something about the migration crisis.”

Public protest has both managed to prevent deportations and make the public aware that people are being deported to some of the most dangerous places on Earth. However, the policy seems to be expanding. German immigration lawyer Philipp Pruy sees Afghanistan as a “test run”: “We are now seeing the first signs, with asylum seekers from Iraq getting rejected the same way as Afghans”.

Citizens of other states with large numbers of asylum claimants could be removed from Europe in a similar way, regardless of the situation to which they are being returned. Using labels that restrict the right to protection of refugees, such as “tolerated stay” and schemes to remove asylum seekers, tantamount to forced removals, in breach of human rights and international law obligations on non-refoulement, deliberately undermine and violate domestic, European and international laws.

Global trend

The trend is worrying and European states are not alone in this regard. In recent years, Pakistan has returned large numbers of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan; many were born in and have always lived in Pakistan. Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers are at similar risk in the USA.

In a recent report, Felipe González Morales, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of migrants, criticised the heavy reliance of states on deportation as a solution to migration problems and suggested “prioritizing more human rights-based alternatives such as migrants’ regularization”. This has been suggested by the Iraqi authorities to European states: admit Iraqis as refugees until the situation in the country is safe enough for people to return. González Morales states that deportation is “more costly and difficult to put into practice than the social inclusion of migrants”.

By labelling countries as “safe”, “migrants from those countries who seek asylum are confronted with accelerated asylum procedures during which a higher burden is placed on applicants to prove their refugee status”. This results in situations where “migrants are often expelled in violation of international human rights principles and norms, which include the prohibition of collective expulsions and the principle of non-refoulement.” Just as the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have set the trend for the multilateral violent conflicts that have followed them, it appears that asylum seekers and refugees from these countries are also the guinea pigs for various policies to remove them back to the war zones they once fled.

This is part II of a two-part study on mass removals of Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers from Europe. Although apparently separate issues and countries, the two should be read together to inform current trends on asylum policy and practice in Europe. Part I on Afghanistan can be read here.

2 comments on “Gimme Shelter! Mass Removals of Asylum Seekers from Europe (Part II: Iraq)

  1. Pingback: Gimme Shelter! Mass Removals of Asylum Seekers from Europe (Part I: Afghanistan) | one small window...

  2. Noel Hamel
    August 1, 2018

    These two articles bring home the folly and small-minded bravado of western governments’ claims about ‘wars of pacification’ launched in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11. Neither country and their populations were complicit in the 9/11 crimes and the western attacks have had the effect of creating instability there and elsewhere. The peoples of those two countries continue to pay an unacceptable price, including when they flee to try to find security and stability elsewhere. The idea that returning asylum seekers and refugees to those countries is justified because they are stable and safe is just compounding all the other lies that have characterised those two western wars.

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