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Britain to Start Offering Benefits to Iraqi Refugees Who Return Home - 2003-06-21

Britain has announced that starting this month it will offer a benefits package to Iraqis living in the country who volunteer to return home. And the prime minister's office has warned that Iraqi asylum-seekers could be forced to return home starting at the end of the year. But refugee advocates are concerned about the push to send Iraqis home, warning conditions in Iraq are still too unstable to ensure their safety.

A spokesman for the British government says the new policy applies to Iraqis who arrived fairly recently and whose asylum claims have not yet been processed. The government is offering them a package of incentives worth about $850 to return to Iraq voluntarily. A statement from the prime minister's office says those who do not accept the package, and are not granted asylum, will be forced to go home later this year.

Britain says that since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there is no longer any reason for Iraqis to need asylum. Therefore, officials expect to reject asylum claims by thousands of Iraqis who entered Britain in recent months.

In the past 10 years, Britain has granted asylum or temporary residency to 26,000 Iraqis. According to the British government and the United Nations, that is about five percent of the 500,000 Iraqis displaced worldwide.

Britain's announcement of its plan to begin sending Iraqis home comes as the U.N. refugee agency is urging European countries to be patient in returning Iraqi refugees. The agency warned this week that conditions in Iraq are not yet stable enough for large-scale returns.

A spokesman for the British organization Refugee Action, Stephen Rylance, says he has had calls from Iraqi refugees who are eager to return to careers and families they left behind. But Mr. Rylance says different regions of Iraq have different levels of security. He says the return process should not be rushed. "Our position is basically, not now, but what we're certainly not saying is not ever. I think it's absolutely vital for the reconstruction of Iraq that Iraqi refugees do return home and take their skills back to their country and contribute to their country. But we haven't anything like the kind of stability that's required for return to be sustainable," he says.

This week, a group of about 40 Iraqi asylum seekers and refugee advocates picketed outside the Home Office in London to protest the British policy changes, saying the situation in Iraq must be stabilized before they would consider returning.

"Refugee rights are human rights! No to deportation of Iraqi people! Iraq is unsafe! Kurdistan is unsafe!

The leader of the Kurdistan Refugee Women's Organization, Sawsan Salim, says she worries that, although Saddam Hussein's government has been removed, signs of increasing religious fundamentalism in Iraq could prove just as dangerous for human rights. "None of those parties, none of those who are representing Iraqi opposition, mention anything about women's rights. It's not easy to bring down my expectation of life, because there is nothing there," she says. "The whole country is destroyed. I can't start again; it's too much for us."

The representative in Britain for the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, Dashty Jamal, says Britain and the United States should recognize their special responsibilities as occupying powers in Iraq. "The American, the British government, they are part of that situation now," he says. "And also there is no water, no electricity, no work, and also now every day the people are starting a demonstration. So if Iraq is unsafe for the British soldier and the American soldier, how is it safe for those asylum seekers who fled that situation there?"

Mr. Jamal says offers of money from the British government cannot compensate Iraqis for the dangers they would face if they return home.

For now, the British government is concentrating on helping Iraqis return home voluntarily. But the prime minister's office says the voluntary program will become enforced returns later this year.