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USA UK and Malta News
15/10/2007 - 13:36

UN urges Britain to take in more Iraqis

The UN refugee agency has called on Britain to do more to help Iraqis resettle away from areas where their lives could be in danger.

The agency has welcomed Gordon Brown's promise last week to give asylum to a limited number of Iraqis who worked for British forces in Basra, after demands from senior British officers. But the UNCHR has also expressed concern that the move could send mixed signals to thousands of other Iraqis waiting to move to safe countries.

"The UNHCR is grateful for any new quota, but we hope the UK will look at the resettlement needs of Iraqis in general, and not just focus on one group," Margo Rayment, the resettlement officer in Amman for the UN high commission for refugees, told the Guardian. Britain's record of taking in Iraqis has so far been poor.

The UN office in Jordan has this year given Britain the names of 123 people whom it considers in need of resettlement. The Home Office asks the UN to do rigorous screening and does not insist on doing its own interviews.

This means that the names submitted by the UN have a strong prima facie case for being accepted into Britain quickly.

Yet of the 123 names submitted by the UN only 17 have been accepted. While British officials only rejected three, they have failed to move ahead on the other names, leaving applicants in anxious limbo for months.

Widows and other women with no male relatives are of special concern to the UN agency. Some have been forced into prostitution, others rely on handouts. "A lot of people are running out of money. We see this from the take-up of our offers of food assistance. It's culturally difficult for Iraqis to accept free food, but they are having to do it," said Imran Riza, the head of the UNHCR office in Jordan.

Until the government's concession last week, Britain only took Iraqis who could show a link with Britain. This could be a close family member living here or a history of themselves having lived in the UK, for example as a student.

These requirements in effect excluded the vast number of Iraqis who have fled the country in the past four years. Only Iraqis who managed to make their own way to Brtitain and then applied for asylum were considered. Here too the government's record was far from generous. Over 80% were rejected, according to the latest Whitehall figures.

The new quota of 500 - which the government is offering interpreters and other staff - bypasses this system and opens the door to a new category of applications under what is called the Gateway programme. It is available to asylum-seekers from various countries but not to Iraqis, until last week's announcement.

Hundreds of serving and former Iraqi employees of the British in Basra are continuing to wait for the government to release more details about the new policy. Some are fearful the UK will not honour its promises to offer sanctuary from insurgents.

nicolas maury

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