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UK accused of ‘washing its hands’ of Iraqi refugees

Just a tenth of Iraqis claiming asylum in the UK have been given refugee status since the war

Adam Bychawski Anita Mureithi
24 March 2023, 12.23pm

Promises of help from then prime minister Tony Blair have not materialised, say Iraqis.


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When Tony Blair appeared on Iraqi television days after US forces, supported by the UK, captured Baghdad, his aim was to reassure citizens and offer them hope.

“My experience of people the world over is that we all want to be able to live our lives in peace and security [...] For years, that chance has been denied to you. Millions of your countrymen and women have been forced to leave. Many thousands have been murdered, tortured, brutalised by the regime,” the British prime minister told viewers.

“We want to give you the chance to rebuild your country; to rebuild your lives; to give your families a chance of a better future. It is in the spirit of friendship and goodwill that we now offer our help.”

Two decades on, some Iraqis and refugee organisations feel that the promise of help from the UK has been forgotten. Hundreds of thousands have fled sectarian violence and persecution in the intervening years. Many have sought refuge in the UK, but few have been able to start the new life Blair spoke of.

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Once Iraqis reach the UK, they face a whole new set of challenges, as Emad Ebadi knows too well. For the last twelve years, he has been the director of the Iraqi Welfare Association, a charity established in 1991 to support Iraqis integrate in their new home country. Ebadi, 67, himself came to the UK as a student in 1977. He never intended to stay, but then war broke out between Iraq and Iran in 1980.

“I wanted to go back but my family said: ‘If you return, you’ll be killed’,” he said, counting himself one of the lucky ones. “Many of my peers died during those years.”

Ebadi witnessed a successive wave of migration to the UK in 1990 and 1991 during the First Gulf War and Shia and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam Hussein. But it was the US-led invasion in 2003 that was the turning point.

“Iraq was a rich country, people had no reason to leave before the [2003] invasion. But the war left a terrible legacy, it has really destroyed the infrastructure of the country. This in turn, has affected the well-being and the mental health of the population.

“Every time I visit I’m reminded how beautiful the country is, but people don’t have hope. There is a high rate of unemployment and corruption. My two daughters spent five years at university studying dentistry and now that they’ve graduated – one a year ago and the other six months ago – they can’t find work,” he said.

In the two decades since the war began, more than 51,661 Iraqis have applied for asylum in the UK. More than six thousand arrived last year, the vast majority (4, 377) by crossing the Channel on small boats.

The majority of Iraqis asylum claims since 2003 have been refused. Only a fifth (11,647) have been either granted some form of leave to remain in the country and just a tenth (6,097) have been given refugee status. 

Savan Qadir, a journalist and project manager for campaign group Refugees for Justice said the Home Office’s high-rate of asylum claim refusals was based on a “delusional” belief that the country is safe.

“In [the government’s] definition, Iraq is safe now just because Saddam Hussein is gone, but there are powerful people just like him. The economy is totally damaged… If you’re living in a country [where] you cannot feed yourself or your children, then you’re not safe.

“It breaks my heart that the UK is washing its hands of its responsibility to Iraq. Britain has always been like that, look at the history of slavery and colonisation. They ruled the world. They divided countries and changed their culture. And now, we can’t even talk about it…. There’s no responsibility. There’s no accountability for what they’ve done in history. And recent history in 2003, included,” he said.

The Home Office told openDemocracy that it is “committed to supporting those directly from regions of conflict and instability” but that “those who wish to claim asylum should do so in the first safe country they arrive”.

Qadir has experienced the UK’s asylum system first hand, having fled Iraq in 2015. The restrictions placed on asylum seekers, such as the inability to work, are “dehumanising” because they leave people unable to participate in society, he said.

Those who are granted discretionary leave to remain, rather than refugee status, can be left in limbo for years, unsure whether they might be forced to return to the country they fled. Some Iraqis fall through the cracks of the system altogether.

“The way Iraqi refugees have been treated is disgraceful. I know someone who has been in the system for 16 years with no papers. He is suffering from severe mental health problems. And with no right [to] work… 16 years in the system, 16 years of his life have been taken away.

“Because in a system where you have no right to work, you have no right to travel, you have no right to vote, you have no right to anything in any way, then you’re not living. You’re breathing, but you’re not living,” he said.

More recent arrivals to the UK face even more uncertainty about their future. At the end of 2022, more than 12,000 Iraqis were stuck in temporary accommodation for more than six months waiting for a decision on their asylum claims. Many will have been waiting for even longer – the average wait time for a decision is between one and three years, according to the Refugee Council.

The Home Office said it is “working to speed up asylum processing so that people do not wait months or years in the backlog, at vast expense to the taxpayer, and to remove everyone who doesn’t have a legitimate reason to be here”.

The Iraqi Welfare Association offers what legal support it can with its two caseworkers and also regularly distributes food and other necessities to those stuck in hotels.

Edabi says the months, and sometimes years, living in small rooms while being afforded few freedoms has had an impact on the health of Iraqis asylum seekers.

“Because the Home Office has not decided what to do with them, they’ve been exposed to very high anxiety and uncertainty. There is no proper assessment of their mental conditions, but I think they are all suffering from mental illnesses on different levels,” he said.

Many children are missing out on an education because the parents simply cannot afford the transportation costs from hotels in isolated areas, Edabi said. Asylum seekers are given £9.10 a week if their accommodation provides food. 

“That’s not enough to cover the weekly bus fare for parents who want to take their kids to school,” he said.

Compounding the apprehension for Iraqi asylum seekers is the fear that they might be deported to Rwanda. The recently announced Illegal Migration Bill would give the home secretary a duty to remove all migrants who have arrived in the UK irregularly since early March – before their claim can even be heard. 

“I don’t think it makes sense. They don’t know the country. They don't know the language. They don't know the culture, the tradition – nothing. There are no employment opportunities for them there. Why are you sending them?

“A young Iraqi man and woman currently in a hotel told me: ‘If they want to send us there, I would kill myself before I even get there,’” said Edabi.

In June last year, the Home Office’s first planned deportation flight to Rwanda was halted at the 11th hour following a legal challenge from the European Court of Human Rights. The court found that there was “a real risk of irreversible harm” to one of the passengers, an Iraqi man, if he was transported to Rwanda. 

The government claims that the policy, which remains on hold, will “put a stop to illegal migration into the UK by removing the incentive to make dangerous small boat crossings”. But Edabi is doubtful that Iraqis will be deterred.

“They are so determined. Honestly, nothing could stop them, I’m telling you,” he said.

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